Hits the spot

A world bloomed in her mug. A forest emerged, complete with a circle of ravens to welcome the dawn. Perhaps this blend of tea was more magical than advertised?

Bergamot, hyssop, and a dash of hinoki oil were the listed ingredients, but she was sure there had to be some surprises. There always were. No cook gave away all her secrets. They were like magicians in that way. Revealing just enough but not too much … any more and the gig was up and you’d be out of a job.

People paid for secrets. They paid to be surprised. People paid to suspend their disbelief if only for an hour. It was how writers survived – this compulsive need for lies of all sizes and shades. White lies were still lies after all,still less than the truth. But the truth was too much for most people. Little white lies kept the wheels of society greased.

But this tea might take some serious adjusting to. Was she tall enough for this ride? She’d gone to this tea blender for several months now but this was the first time she’d considered that the mix wasn’t for her. Perhaps it was for another customer? Or perhaps the blender (more alchemist than anything else) had over estimated her needs this time.

For this was no ordinary tea shop that she found. The tea resided in dark brown glass jars, with handwritten labels. Some were blends, but most were raw ingredients, ready to be whisked together into the need of the day. Patrons didn’t even tell the clerk what they wanted. That wouldn’t do. They could not be expected to be objective enough to know what they really needed, after all.So they came in, waited their turn, and then sat before the clerk who observed them. Sometimes s/he would take their pulse. Sometimes s/he would ask the patron to stick out their tongue. But nothing more – no medical history, no list of prescriptions or supplements written down or spoken.

It was a simple affair, but one that required over a decade of training, and that was only after a rigorous testing just to be considered for the role of student. Students had to be impeccable in their words and actions,diplomatic, and able to raise all the funds for their training upfront. There were no scholarships. There were no loans. The entire tuition had to be fully funded from the start. The teacher wished for each student to be able to serve her whole-heartedly upon the completion of their apprenticeship (not graduation, for they would never cease to learn) so the patrons could be served without distraction or hesitation.

So this had to be what she needed, but was she ready for it? It tasted like no other tea she’d ever had. Was that a woodpecker call she heard from her mug? Did she see antlers? She’d never hallucinated before, college being at a private Christian school, but she suspected this was what it must feel like. And feel was the right word – she didn’t just see the trees and animals in her tea, she could hear and smell them too. They were there, but in miniature, in her mug.

Well, there was nothing to it but to do it, so she took a sip. The forest stayed horizontally oriented, the birds continued to fly, and the still hot tea tasted like earth and moss and stone as it slid down her throat.

Strangely, it was exactly what she needed.

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The bones of the matter

She’d asked for a dog but they gave her an alligator instead.Or maybe it was a crocodile? She wasn’t sure and they weren’t telling. They never told her anything anyway. Just gave her chores to do and no instructions and there was hell to pay if she didn’t do it right – whatever that may be. She never knew because they never said.

And yet, somehow, at her tender age, she’d sussed it out.Without training or guidance or even an instruction book she knew how to do it,whatever it was, in spite of them. Were they trying to test her? Or were they simply evil, hoping for her downfall, wanting an excuse to yell at her for not doing well?

Was this how they were raised? Was this how they thought they should treat others? What goes around comes around, after all, and people can’t treat people like how they want to be treated if they don’t know any better.

So she suffered from these teachers, these guides, these “superiors”who left her a box of materials and not even a picture of it go by for what she was supposed to build. Sometime she built whatever she wanted. If they didn’t watch it, she might build a rocket launcher. It would serve them right.

Right now she was training her reptilian companion to fetch,but soon would start the real training. He had sharp teeth and a surprisingly strong tail. It would be easy to teach him to attack on command. It was part of this nature, after all, to grab a victim and pull it down under the water,thrashing and turning until he could bite down a few more times. Puncture wounds usually took the fight out of anything rather quickly.

She didn’t want to resort to that, having spent more time in Sunday school than she cared to consider. Perhaps that was their plan all along– make her docile, unwilling to fight for her rights, unwilling to follow her own nature. Humans were selfish creatures once you got down to the bare bones of the matter, and religion was nothing more than a way to civilize them, make it possible for them to live together in close quarters.

But that wasn’t who they really were, all that forgiveness and “turn the other cheek” hooey. What person in her right mind would give away her only coat, either? And yet they’d done it, mostly, had trained women to be passive, to apologize for speaking their minds, to forgive even when the other person hadn’t apologized. Maybe this was why women were majority of those who suffered depression and anxiety attacks. The dissonance was unbearable.

She started to wonder if maybe she wasn’t truly female, at least all the way. Maybe she was just female on the outside. She didn’t feel one way or the other on the inside, but she had nothing to compare it to so she didn’t know any better. But she did know she wasn’t swallowing what they were trying to feed her. She wondered how all her classmates and friends could stomach this madness, this meal of compliance and conformity. It tasted bitter to her, and bare. It tasted of bones and bile, nothing nutritious, and certainly nothing to benefit a growing girl.

Maybe that was their point – to stunt her, to slow her down.Maybe their treatment of her was for the same reason a horse was handicapped –to not give it an unfair advantage, to level the playing field. Maybe they were afraid the other children would feel low around her, so they brought her down to their level. But when ever has dimming a light helped those in darkness find their way?

It was time to shine.

But first, she was going to train her pet to do some tricks they didn’t see coming. They needed to know it wasn’t right to mess with nature.

Farmhouse

She nearly slipped on the moss covered cobblestones. How long had it been since someone had used this hatch? And yet the planter near the gate had a tiny plant in it – trimmed, healthy, not unruly and wild as cultivated plants went. This was being tended – but by who? And why wasn’t s/he using the door? Why come all this way to keep this plant in a pot alive? This corner of the farm wasn’t exactly on the way to anything you needed. There weren’t chickens to feed, horses to comb over here. And yet someone had been here, and recently – within the week at least.

Funny how wildflowers never needed attention,but everything else did. Maybe it was time for people to start valuing things as they were and stop messing with nature. Nature knew best how to stay alive.

But now she was in charge of the farm. It washers, to have and to hold from this day forward, until she died. She hoped it was for better, not worse, but you never knew with these arrangements.

The country had offered this unique real estate plan for 30 years or more now and it was working out well. If you promised to improve the property and to never sell it, you could stay there for free. It was a great way to deal with the homeless crisis and abandoned buildings at the same time. Two birds, one stone.

Once a minor government worker had put the pieces together it was so obvious a solution that the bureaucrats almost didn’t act on it. It was so simple that they thought there had to be a hitch. Where was the profit? How could they benefit – in tax revenue, if nothing else? Once it was explained that they no longer had to pay the police to chase off squatters, they started to warm up to the idea. Once it was explained that they also wouldn’t have to spend any money on the homeless, they cottoned to the idea even more. And yet they still were wary – were they simply letting the squatters win? Was this another liberal trick?

There were background checks. There were interviews. There were tests. There were forms – God were there forms! That alone weeded out the illiterate and the impatient. Only those who made the time to wade through all that folderol were up to the task after all.

Plenty of people who won the challenge moved in right away, bringing their whole family with them – aunts, cousins, dogs, the lot. They had learned in the interview process that it would require many hands to make light work of all the farm chores. Others, lacking in blood kin,scouted the neighboring villages – the farm houses often being isolated affairs– and hired the very people who had been ousted as squatters the weeks before in the transition.

Those people knew the patterns of the farms – where the animals huddled in bad weather, where it was dry and where was wet. This knowledge would help speed things along. Plus – they were often grateful to legitimately live where they had spent so much time. To get paid in bed and board at a place you’d stay for free was a real blessing. The farms ended up like a kibbutz – a collective, where no profit was expected and hard work was understood.

But this little doorway – with its rough hewn wood and antique door lock – what was it guarding? And how long since it had been opened? Or had it ever? It was entirely possible that the door had been created just to keep something in forever, or at least as long as it was alive.Otherwise why have a lock? If it was something that needed to be forgotten, it could have been walled up, with no sign to passersby that there was anything of interest beyond.

So she found someone on the farm who could pick locks, and away they went into the hatch, just the two of them, but prepared at least with a pitchfork and a hoe. There was no telling what they would face.

Inside they met a mirror monster, which greeted them with suspicion and curiosity and a bit of entitlement. The two humans felt that this was their home and everyone else needed to leave – in the mirror monster felt the same way. It was only showing them what they showed it. It was nature, at its most basic, and it had stayed alive all this time because most of the people who encountered it were comfortable with the foreign, the alien. They saw it as a friend they didn’t know yet, rather than an enemy to be defeated.The mirror monster lived in this field – had as long as memory and longer. It roamed its land and never strayed.

A century ago or more a landowner had marked off the monster’s land, declared it sacred and special, because he felt whole there. This was his special place to remember who he really was – not scattered and divided, but complete and calm and centered.

If he’d been of the religion bent, he might’ve told the local rabbi or vicar about this place and let them enclose it further, building tall walls and a roof to further mark the space as sacred, as set-aside, but he wasn’t, so he didn’t. He felt it was important to leave this area for anyone who needed it, rather than seal it up only for those of that one faith tradition and only open when they felt like it.

It was his ancestor who watered the plant near the hatch, but she did it secretly. It wouldn’t do to call attention. Her forefather, the one who built the walls but not the door, had been ousted by someone of a different ilk, a darker bent. That person had come to visit but had jealousy in his heart. He saw the flourishing farm and wanted it for his own.

He used the law to his own advantage, not as it was intended.Instead of the law being a shield to protect the innocent, it was used as a sword to cut and divide. Within a few short months the farm changed hands.

When this interloper, this usurper, entered the field, the mirror monster struck with full force, meeting energy with energy as was its nature. Faced with his own ugliness, his own greed, the new owner put up a gate with a lock to ensure he never accidentally walked in there again. If the farm were smaller, he’d have torn down the walls and dug up the field, attempting to eradicate the spirit. Not like that would have done him any good – the force occupied the space, not the land. It was beyond the material, beyond what you could see and touch.

This would have been the case had a shrine been built there too – the place didn’t make you better or worse. It just made you more of what you already were.

These mirror monsters were everywhere, and many’s the temple that had been built over their domain. And many of the sacred sites had good people as well as bad visit. The place could serve as a challenge to the unsettled, the suspicious – where they suddenly had a choice. Continue feeling unsettled, fearful, or start feeling curious and open. They had a choice to stay where they were or become someone else – someone open and hopeful.

But now she thought – what to make of this place? Or did it need anything done to it? Not everything needed to be “developed”. Some things are perfect as they were, unspoiled, naturally alive. There is a wisdom in the unspoiled, the as-is. Where did humans get the idea they were improving land –that their way was better than God’s way?

Forest

The forest had grown up around the archway, twisting tendrils and vines into and over and through the rough hewn stones. It would be impossible if not foolish to cut away the foliage now – living plant and dead stone had merged into one being now, inseparable.

The founders of the garden had no idea this would happen, but they and their plans were long forgotten by now. What had been the centerpiece of the village had become an afterthought, a ruin. It was a century later this treasure was rediscovered during a push for more housing. The forest that had grown up was now seen as expendable, extra, not vital. Some politicians even preyed on people‘s fear and said that dangerous animals lurked within, or that the forest harbored criminals or immigrants.

So now the garden has been found again, and now the people learned it was built as a sanctuary for peace, an embassy of healing. This was created as a “breathing room” for anyone who needed it – a sanctuary of stillness and calm where people of all walks of life could refresh and recharge their souls.

However they’d forgotten the need for this, forgotten they had to tend the soil of their hearts in order to bear fruit. Forgotten, to their peril and loss.

Anchorite

She looked out of the small window in the door, her only connection to the outside world. For over two decades she’d been kept in this tiny apartment, alone to work. It would be nearly another decade before she would be released, her job done.

It wasn’t quite imprisonment, but there was some truth to the monastic term “cell” that was used to describe her place. It had the basics –toilet, tub, and a kitchenette, along with a bed and a desk. Just enough and not too much. It was hers and hers alone.

Only that which could fit through the tiny window in the door could be given to her or from her. That was fine because she made most of what she needed from raw materials – fabric, grain, it made no difference to her.She had the time to sew or bake as the occasion warranted. She learned it was useful time – it didn’t take away from her writing. When she felt that the well of words was dry, she filled it up by being creative in other ways. Plenty a solution was found when her hands were busy making.

It looked dark in there to outsiders but that was to dissuade them. It wouldn’t do to have people want to follow her in this life. It wasn’t easy or for those who had no discipline. It was a quiet life, with tiny pleasures that came when they wanted to. There was little glory in it, but there was a lot of grace. Here she learned the value of patience and of practice – the slow sure path to the only kind of perfection available on this side of eternity.

In her cell was all the light she needed, provided by the Light of the world. Every day the Spirit of God would descend like a September cloud upon her chest of drawers, between the two angel candlesticks. No one else ever saw this. No one else would ever believe it either.

Her bureau wasn’t just a place to keep her clothes. It was also the Ark of the covenant, the site of the mercy seat. Plenty of folks thought it was lost, but that was because the trail had gone cold all those centuries ago. God knew it wouldn’t do to keep such a thing around. Even then it had become an idol, a stand in, a replacement for the One who visited there.So God hid it from people’s minds, making it lost to those who sought it.

It had been in Jeanne’s family for a century or more. Her great-grandfather found it in an antique shop in Normandy and knew right away what it was. A modest price, and to the casual eye it was just a chest of drawers and nothing else. Certainly not a holy thing, the holy thing.

It hadn’t been brought to Normandy. Truth be told, the shop owner was surprised to see this item when Jeanne’s ancestor asked for help loading it onto his wagon. But she was always misplacing things in her labyrinthine shop anyways. Maybe her partner had brought it in on one of her rare days off. Perhaps it was time for a real vacation, she mused, but how to find the time? The shop wouldn’t run itself.

Jeanne’s ancestor could see the Ark for what it was because he wasn’t in a hurry to be anywhere else. It appeared to him, showed him what it truly was, only because he was content in a way that the world didn’t teach.He wasn’t in a hurry to be anywhere else, be anyone else. So when it came time to pass it on, he did nothing. The chest / Ark would find the right person, or it would leave the family and go somewhere else. Wasn’t that the way with the Spirit? It made no sense to assume the mantle of glory would pass on to the next generation. It wasn’t hereditary like a monarchy. The only monarch was God, not a human. It was only logical that God would crown any one of his children – or none at all.

Jean was grateful the Ark had made it to her, but it wasn’t an accident. Her parents and grandparents in that line had been very centered and calm and had taught her how to live the same way. It was like a double inheritance, now that she thought about it – a calm presence and the presence of God. It was how she was able to be locked away in her cell all these years.And yet, she looked forward to the time when the harvest was right and she could teach the world all that God had taught her face-to-face.

(Written 10/8/18)

Gateway

The house was built up around the doorway, not the other way around. Much like how paved roads developed from foot paths, it was easier to follow the path of least resistance, or the path that was most efficient.

That doorway had been an arch, a gateway to an elevated position. It worked a change in status, a never going back. Those who walked across that threshold were forever transformed.

Was it the place itself that caused the transformation, or the act of it? Was simply walking up those steps and under the arch enough of the sign – a decision made and cemented by the physical act? Or was there something to the years of bare feet crossing this threshold with the same firm intention, the same true heart? Like water wearing a groove in a river bed, the channel simply grew deeper and more sure, more able to hold true to its path.

For centuries there was just this place. No steps, no archway – and certainly no door or walls. Nobody questioned it. It was never used accidentally or irreverently. But then times changed. People moved away from the village. Customs were not passed down intact. Things that adults took for granted as fact were not taught to the children. They assumed they knew, forgetting or never realizing their own quiet and subtle indoctrination.

Ways of being together in community, the ways that marked each group as separate and distinct, weren’t automatic. They could not be presumed to be known. They required careful and deliberate teaching, but not the overt kind. You couldn’t teach someone how you lived together the same way you’d teach the rules of the road or a language. No, that teaching was hidden in the unspoken language, through tone, through how you held your body, through the look on your face. That was taught in the under-language, but it still must be taught.

Had the communication breakdown happened when the families became decentralized? New couples moved away from hometowns, in search of jobs or change. Both wife and husband worked instead of just one, because there were so many more things they had to buy. If they’d stayed put they could have gotten family to help instead of having to hire it out to strangers. Babysitting or home repair weren’t cheap, and caused a strain on already meager resources.

Or had the transmission of culture disintegrated because of the influx of others from elsewhere? While one group of couples left, another came to fill in the gap, both in search of greener pastures, not realizing that one person‘s trash was indeed another one’s treasure.

Perhaps it was a bit of both, or something more. No matter, the fact was a fact – and the fact was that the majority of the town didn’t know the whys and the wherefore of the village’s unique tradition. Rather than have someone accidentally be changed, the older villagers chose to enclose the area, to make it impossible to cross unless the initiate was truly ready. It wouldn’t do to have someone accidentally become something they weren’t ready for.

And what exactly happened at that gateway? What did initiates become? They were not given a new title or a new name. Their new membership in this unique club was never notarized. There were no meetings, fees, or dues. But there was most certainly a change that came over them, a palpable difference. Perhaps it was the lightness of the heart, or a twinkling of the eye, but they were different.

Once they crossed that threshold they ceased being alone. All fear left them, all doubt, all pain. Once they crossed over they were not the same person because they were more than just a person. They were joined, made whole, reunited. They were one with the Creator. It was Nirvana. It was heaven on earth. It was Zen. Sure, they still carried water and chopped wood. It wasn’t like they sat around all day thinking about God. They didn’t have to. Once they crossed over, they shared the mind of God, which was even better. There was no need to stop working, because work itself became a delight, a way to yoke action with thought – a way to bring forth God’s light into the world.

But why wall this up? Why put a doorway? Wouldn’t everyone want this bliss, this grace,? It turned out that the person had to be prepared and willing to accept this change. Otherwise it was like trying to move a dozen people into an efficiency apartment. There was no room for you to move around, no space to think or rest. Unprepared, a newly expanded person often went mad. Some had delusions of grander, when in reality they weren’t even adequate. Some thought they were God. Some thought they were Moses, or Elijah, or Jesus. The mental hospitals and homeless shelters in the big city begin to fill up with these lost souls, these broken vessels, because the people of the village shunned them. They didn’t know what had happened, didn’t know that these people had crossed through the gateway prematurely, unready, unknowing. All the villagers knew was that they suddenly had strangers in their midst, people who looked like their friends and neighbors but acted like aliens. They no longer fit inside their bodies or community, so they left, pushed out. A village this small could not function with people that broken. So to prevent further losses, the elders made the gateway into a sanctuary, a shrine, unlocked only on ember days and solstices. Those who had already become whole would wait inside on those days and welcome their newest members.

Not everyone crossed the threshold. Not everyone wanted to. Not everyone was up to it. Not everyone knew what it was. But for those who crossed, their lives were never the same again.

Written mid November 2017

Morning has broken

The mist lay over the land like a comforter smoothing away the edges. Sounds traveled less at these times, but few beings knew this. Those who were nocturnal were already snuggled down, deep in their burrows. Those who were diurnal had not yet roused by this time.

The chill of the October air swirled about the massive buck, and steam poured from his nostrils. They tested the air, flared a bit at an uncommon scent. Sharp, like fear, like the smell of anger. His ears perked up now, alert to this new concern. He could hear nothing amiss, but his nose had never been wrong.

No one had appointed him protector of the forest. This was a job he had inherited when the last old buck died. Every forest had one – a keeper, a protector. He simply knew to patrol the boundaries,to protect the sanctity of the forest. Nobody else knew his task. It was silent, secret. He insured the peace of the forest home for all the residents –animals and plants.

The trees were his wards too. When he marked them with his scent he was bringing special attention to them – this one needed healing by being noticed. Or this one needed to be left alone by the other deer.

The moose and bear weren’t the same – theymarked what they wanted, when they wanted. No rhyme and certainly no reasonthere. But they were asleep in many ways.

He had the burden of being awake, and being alone. This was a task that was best performed with full attention, or not at all.

It was time to check out that smell. It wasn’t going away and it felt like it would only get bigger. He walked towards it,carefully, slowly, eager to not make a sound. His tall slim legs deftly maneuvered around the branches in the forest, placing his hooves precisely, no sound created to alert others. While he was unwilling to call attention to his duty, he was also unwilling to alert whatever was making this scent – not until it was time.

It took nearly an hour to make his way there. By then his ears could hear the noise. And then he saw it – some huge yellow monster, with round feet and a huge single arm, grabbing at the dirt in massive, greedy grabs. Another yellow monster, arms wrapping around 40 foot trees and stripping off their branches as if they were saplings. His eyes grew wide – what were these beasts who were eating his home? They were the source of the smell, that burning, the smoke, the terror.

The blood that ran through them was from the remains of animals who died long ago – long before this forest was populated with his kind. It was from larger animals, ones that lived in warmer times. The blood of these yellow monsters was made from death, from decay. And yet, the breath from these immense yellow animals would bring about the change that made life possible for them again.

The dinosaurs were having their revenge, now, a millennia later. They had been reborn as the fuel that powered these machines that were destroying the earth for mammals – making it too warm for warm blooded animals, making it perfect for reptiles and larger-than-life lizards.These ghosts had possessed the people, making them crave oil, haunting them to create gasoline, pursuing them to make more and more, to destroy more and more.

The ancient stag knew madness when he saw it. It had stalked his forest in years past. He knew it was a force that was beyond reason.It was a hunger, an emptiness, a vacuum. It was an empty void that could never be filled. Things could never ever be enough – food, power, property. That kind of emptiness only lead to more cravings, not less. It was like scratching at hives – it only made you itch more.

The stag returned to the forest and thought about what to do. The machines could be destroyed, but the people would only bring more. A show of force from the bigger animals – the bears, the mountain lions – would only bring hunters with guns.

The next morning he knew. He went to talk to the trees in that area and explained to them how they needed to give up their spirits. The wood needed to be rotten inside and for that the tree spirit had to leave. Then the wood wouldn’t be valuable anymore. Then he talked to the soil around the area, to soften up to the two legged, to make it impossible for them to scout deeper into the forest. Not quite as bad as quicksand, but better than mud for grabbing it shoes. Enough of that and maybe the people would leave.

He had no way to ensure they wouldn’t come back in the future, but by then he would be gone. Another stag would have taken his place as guardian of these hills, his home. Another stag would have to stand against this incessant encroachment, this greedy grabbing.

(Written early October 2018) (inspired by artwork by Dan McCarthy)