Walking with whatever

Moving into a house where I already live is turning out to be more time-consuming than I anticipated. But the beautiful weather lured me into taking a short walk yesterday morning, in between working on a new batch of bread up at my parents’ house. Sundays are always a good day to go walking, regardless of the weather, due to the relative quiet. There isn’t as much traffic on the highways, and most noise-making businesses are shut down. Despite my left-libertarian views, I’m a strong supporter of blue laws.

We’re rapidly approaching the peak of fall color now. Almost all the trees and shrubs in the understory had turned, and shone like stained glass in the morning sun. As I started up the trail, I found myself thinking of a poem by my friend Teju Cole that I had just re-read a couple hours earlier: “The God Walker.” It originally appeared last year in his blog miracle speech, which is no longer online, but was also included in a soon-to-be-published anthology of blogger poets called Brilliant Coroners, of which I have an advance copy. “In the forest near my house / I have taken my god for a walk,” it begins. This is “a household god, / bred for an apartment’s confines,” but by the end of the poem, seduced by the forest smells, he “goes a little wild.”

“Walking with God/Jesus” is one of those clichés that makes intellectual snobs like me keep Protestant Christianity at arm’s length. I like how Teju subverts it in his poem, going out for a walk not with some abstract, omnipotent father-figure but instead with something like a familiar spirit — if not, indeed, Man’s Best Friend (“his wolf ancestors calling to him, / the god flares his wet nose”). “Household god” makes me think of the fetishes — described as “gods” in the King James Bible — which Rachel stole from her father Laban when she fled with Jacob (Genesis 31:19-34). I like the recognition that our images of the divine are limited not only by our own imaginations, but also by the physical environment we associate them with, and our tendency to keep them on leashes. One of my biggest problems with most formalized religions is the way they domesticate and sanitize divinity in the process of making it safe for mass consumption. Usually the trickster persona is the first to go. And once god(s) can no longer legitimately just fuck with people or unleash chaos without having their divinity called into question, you enter the maze known as theodicy, or “justify[ing] the ways of God to Man,” in Milton’s memorable phrase. Aspiring to worship an omnipotent God, we end up instead with one alarmingly subject to human approval, and risk psychological damage in the process by creating a situation where if bad things happen, it can only be our own fault — or at best, the fault of a fallen trickster turned into a cosmic bad cop.

A slightly more conventional but equally creative and whimsical take on divinity comes from another blogger friend, graphic artist Natalie d’Arbeloff in her new book of comic strips, The God Interviews. I bought a copy from her when I was in New York last month, and actually got it inscribed by God, as channeled by Natalie. He gave me two Xs, which I hope represent kisses — if not, I could be in big trouble.

But probably not from this God, who is very much the all-loving sort. He gets out of the theodicy trap in the usual way, by talking about freedom, though with a fun analogy: “You know that thing when a novelist creates characters and they start to have a mind of their own?” God asks. “Yes, but that’s fiction. I’m talking about reality,” says Natalie’s cartoon alter-ego Augustine (no, not that Augustine). “In this reality I’ve given my characters freedom,” says God.

“Freedom to destroy ourselves and the whole shebang?”

“Freedom to reach my destination in your own time in your own ways.”

“And the destination is?”

“Love, naturally.”

Can you really call it freedom, though, if a higher power had to grant it? To my way of thinking, freedom of action is intrinsic to all living things. If it makes sense to talk about divinity at all — and an intuition of “something more” often persuades me that it does — then I think we must be careful not to separate it too much from the way things naturally work. My worldview doesn’t have any room for a supernatural, I guess. The new idea of divinity as an emergent property of complex living systems has definite appeal, though, especially to someone with a strong animist bent.

It’s only fair to point out that Natalie is very much a visual thinker, and the power of her argument is diminished by reducing it to text alone. God is of necessity anthropomorphic — male and brown-skinned, usually barefoot and wearing a t-shirt that says “God,” though his size and sometimes his apparel varies to suit the occasion. So again, as with Teju Cole’s poem, this is divinity as real people experience it, not as priests or theologians or smart-ass poet-bloggers think it should be.

Nor does d’Arbeloff neglect the via negativa. My favorite section, Chapter 12, begins with a visit to a bookstore, which is having a “SUPER SPIRITUAL SALE — All the Answers For the Price of One!” It includes a paean to the power of the imagination reminiscent of William Blake — and given Blake’s understanding of how the prophets could claim to speak for God, that’s probably no accident.

Isaiah answer’d: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

Natalie’s version of this is a little more self-reflexive, and of course a lot funnier. “What do you think of all these people who claim they talk to you?” Augustine asks as they leave the bookstore. “You’re talking to me, aren’t you?” says God. “But I don’t claim to be really real!” Augustine says in a tone of honest indignation.

In the panels that follow, the analogy between artist and divinity is, um, drawn out especially well. The last panel employs a visual quote of the two-faces-or-goblet figure from Gestalt psychology to great effect, with the words “What is really real about you?” inscribed on one of the two, nearly identical profiles, and in the black goblet-space between them: “That which cannot be imagined.”

This was the kind of stuff bouncing around in my head yesterday morning, preventing a full awareness of my surroundings, as usual. When I got to the powerline, I started to hear odd creaking noises from the woods ahead. A flock of blackbirds, I thought, and got my camera ready, figuring the flock would pass overhead at any moment. I stood there waiting for several minutes, but the sound didn’t get any closer, so I continued across the powerline and on up the trail. It got louder and louder as I made my way through the dead and dying mountain laurel, which is so painful to look at now. As I approached the ridgetop, I saw the tops of the oak trees shaking violently, though there was no wind. The sound was all around me, and small flocks of birds began rising from the ground at my approach. They weren’t red-winged blackbirds, as I’d figured, but common grackles — thousands of them, feasting on acorns. This is what a very, very small, outlier flock of passenger pigeons must’ve been like, I thought, and felt the hair rising on the back of my neck.

The awe was short-lived. A moment later I was back to thinking how cool it would be if I could get them all to take flight at once, as icterid flocks will do, with a rush of synchronized wings. I moved purposefully toward what I took to be the center of the flock, but the birds only flew short distances ahead of me, and when I stopped, they flew closer and peered down with their disconcertingly yellow eyes, as if trying to make up their minds to rush me all at once.

I had to get back; the bread needed to go in the oven if we were to have any for lunch. The flock regrouped quickly in my wake, and it occurred to me as I hurried back to the house that the main reason why people don’t have true epiphanies any more is that we’re too damned distracted to recognize them. If the image of walking has such strong sentimental appeal, it’s probably because few people actually make the time to walk any more, or even if they do, like me, they’re too preoccupied with their own thoughts to fully appreciate what’s around them. I probably shouldn’t give away the ending of The God Interviews, but let’s just say that it may well have supplied the inspiration for Teju Cole’s poem. We are all vagrants at heart: “strangers and sojourners,” as God put it in Leviticus 25:23, “going to and fro in the earth, and … walking up and down in it,” as Satan says about himself in his two interviews with God at the beginning of Job.

The bread had risen well. I popped it in the oven, and then spent the next hour moving all my fiction into the dining room, to keep company with my six shelves full of religion books. They were all very dusty. It might be time to give them a good airing out.

Be sure to read Dick Jones’ stunning new poem, God.

22 Replies to “Walking with whatever”

  1. I don’t have time right now to read this with the attention it deserves but I just wanted to point to this post and picture by Jeremy (who is part of Cassava Republic).

    Back later :-)

  2. You do a really nice job here of tying diverse threads together — the leaps from Teju’s poem to Natalie’s interviews to your own experiences of walking in the woods.

    I suspect I’ve asked you this before, because I am nothing if not predictable, but: have you read any John Jerome? “Truck” was the first book of his that I read, and it continues to please me, though “Stone Work” is by far my favorite. Anyway, some of what he has to say about walking in the woods might resonate for you.

  3. rr – Thanks for those links! Absolutely amazing sculpture. I’ve always dug Obatala, based on descriptions in translations of the Ifa corpus.

    leslee – O.K. *puts tea kettle, taps foot

    Rachel – Glad it works for you. I’ve always felt my true strength was in syncretic thinking.

    I think you have, and I still haven’t. :(

  4. The great thing about walking–I mean really walking, the way Gimpel the Fool walks away from everything he owns or thought he owned and into the white fires of metamorphosis in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story–is that you can’t help leaving your material idols behind, whether they’re little kitchen gods or your accrued-over-years poetry books (in a beautiful new green-and-white room) or antique toys or some other heap of things. And then there’s bound to be more room for something bigger and wilder.

    But what I meant to say is that I sent you something buggy (not a virus!) that you want. Probably it is at the wrong address: perhaps one of your private ones? You are so multifarious in e-land!

    Oh, and that business about Rachel and the teraphim: very curious. Perhaps she lies; perhaps she utterly defiles Laban’s guarantees-of-fortune by sitting on them while menstruating. And I would say that her husband has an encounter shortly after that falls into the category of holy-and-wild.

  5. marlyat2 – Thanks for this point about walking. These days i try and keep posts on the shortish side so that people will read them all the way through, but believe me, I did want to go on about pilgrimage and such – and was hoping someone would bring it up in the comments, instead! So thanks; I couldn’t have said it better. The long walk does have a lot of appeal for me too, personally, though I’m not sure I’m as crazy about walking alone as I used to be. To hell with God – I’d want a flesh-and-blood hiking companion!

    I got your emails; haven’t read them yet.

    There is a hint of ritual defilement in the story, I think, yes. I hadn’t thought about the way it helps set up the wrestling-with-whatever story – interesting.

  6. Eh, no rush. Now that I’ve recommended him twice, it’ll probably turn out you don’t actually care for the guy. *g*

    Funny you should mention Rachel and those household gods; one of the email newsletters to which I subscribe tells me today is Rachel’s yarzheit, her death-anniversary, considered an auspicious day to make pilgrimage to her tomb.

  7. Hey, Dave. Dizzying post for one gone so long. I’d love to read Cole’s poem — and the Interviews, as well, sound fascinating. Thanks for all the recommends. Coming here is like nourishment.

    Off to read Dick’s poem. Take care.

  8. I find Natalie’s art and text comforting. As a story. Asking a story how real it is, if it can be quantified and analyzed, is why I prefer not to indulge in comforting belief. I hang out here in the breeze, enjoying the unknowable in a thick jacket of curiosity.

  9. What you say about domesticating God and about theodicy are often true. Some of the most provocative biblical texts (here I’m thinking of Job and Ecclesiastes and many Psalms) are a counter-testimony to the standard domestication narrative [“counter-testimony” is a term used in this way first by scholar Walter Brueggemann].

    But for a minute I want to play the apologist. When you speak of “formalized religions” and refer to them together as “they,” this feels to me like a reification, or even an anthropomorphization, of a group of human beings. Of course, inequalities of power between different classes of people within religious communities result in manipulations, maybe even c0nspiratorial ones. But by and large, I don’t think it is a conspiracy or a reified unitary consciousness that smooths off God’s wild and utterly free edges. If anything, the fact that this standardization and sanitization of the omnipotent and dangerous God happens so frequently would seem to point to one of (at least) two things:
    1. God is not wild;
    or 2. it is a human impulse–and maybe a necessity–to cope with suffering by imagining a caring and dependable God rather than an all-powerful wild ass.

    Thanks for a memorable post.

  10. I’m just very happy reading yours, Dale’s, and Dick’s posts, and thinking back thorough Teju’s poem. Great writing and thinking, and precisely what keeps me loving this medium. Thanks.

  11. So I read this post, clicked through to say “wow,” then scrolled up to the title: “Walking with whatever.” And I laughed out loud. What a delightful dip into the ridiculous from the sublime.

    And yes, this post is wonderfully syncretic: well done.

  12. Rachel – Nice coincidence. As it happens – and I say this with no intention to flatter – “Rachel” has always been one of my favorite women’s names, an impression probably influenced not only by the sound of it but also by the vivid personality of its original bearer. But I always felt sorry for her sister with the funny eyes.

    Angie – Hey, welcome back! I do keep up with your blog via RSS, though that’s not saying much since you haven’t been posting too often. Hope to see more of you soon.

    Zhoen – enjoying the unknowable in a thick jacket of curiosity
    Interesting image! I tend to think of curiosity as a willingness to be naked, to be vulnerable, so thanks for challenging that.

    Brett – Yeah, that’s why I love the Bible – because it isn’t unified, and gives support to a number of different, often opposing viewpoints. Also because, except for some of the Christian parts, it doesn’t have any theology in it!

    Not reification, just an ordinary, broad generalization doing violence to particulars.

    wild ass – Psalm 104 is my favorite!

    Our thinking about wilderness is so influenced by the Bible, as I guess I’ve written here more than once, that I wonder whether doing away with the notion of top-down order doesn’t in fact render the whole wild-domestic dichotomy untenable. Except that with animal and plant domestication, the difference from their wild relatives is way more than semantic, and I do think there’s a really useful (i.e. thought-provoking) analogy to be made between selective breeding and the increasing cultural simplification and standardization that societies seem to go through as they become more centralized. It’s not just religion, it’s everything connected with the life of the mind. I think you’ve read enough ethnography to know what I’m talking about.

    But you’re right: this isn’t really a comment on religion per se, which changes as peoples’ needs for healing change. In other words, I vote for the 2nd of your suggested alternatives.

    Thanks for being a good sport, by the way. I’m inordinantly pleased that actual ministers and rabbis sometimes find my blog worth reading.

    Lorianne – Glad you liked the title, because I really struggled to come up with that. In fact, the first instar of this post had a different and altogether more pretentious title, “Walking with/out.” Then I remembered my favorite nickname for divinity, which I’m guessing is not included among the 99 beautiful names of God invoked by the Prophet.

  13. I think “whatever” is the 100th name of God, but only when intoned in the disinterested style of an exasperated teen: “What…Ever.”

    (Or as they’d say in Boston, “What…Evah.”)

    I’m expecting lightning to strike at any moment, or a tough guy in a GOD t-shirt to arrive at my door…

  14. At the very least, I expect the local Sufis to take a hit out on you. “They often describe their discipline as the quest to know the one-hundredth name of Allah and thus to merge their consciousness with the divine reality,” according to this website.

  15. That is a big wow. Articulate, generous, wide-ranging, and too many other places to jump to for me to cope with. The kind of thing that fills the good angel in me with wonder and gratitude, and makes the bad one smart with a sense of smallness and defeat! I’ll follow just one link for now…

  16. Hey Dave, thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. I can say as a clergyperson that I am often enriched by your thinking and writing, and I suspect that I am not alone among my companions when I wish we had more people like you in our congregations! I read a great little essay today by Richard Rodriguez; he said, “Atheism is wasted on the non-believer.” Exactly–atheism is for us strugglers.

    Also, in a few posts you talk about your experience with the grackles. I’ve also been reading about Buddhism this week–I wonder if a Buddhist would recognize your experience as tathata, which I gather means something like “thatness” or “suchness.” Wondrous thing.

  17. Well, if I lived in your town, I’d go hear you and/or your wife preach, and might even make a habit of it. Gosh, though, I haven’t thought about suchness in years! I went through a Zen period in my teens and early twenties. But Buber’s I and Thou brought me – like so many other poet- and artist-types – back to the West. I agree with the phenomenologists that Western metaphysics is a dead-end based on an inappropriate reification (there’s your word!) of the gerund form of the copulative. But to me, that just makes the Tanakh more interesting: to realize (as Robert Alter said on NPR a couple weeks ago) that ruah really does simply mean “breath,” not “soul” or “spirit”! Very liberating. As for suchness: the Zen didn’t stick, but the philosophical Daoism did, and so I find myself thinking that if we have to have a word for it, man, we’re really fucked.

  18. Dave, I’m late, I’m late, but absolutely glowing with joy to read the way you’ve woven together in truly wild-God fashion these different strands, including my “interviews”. This is the kind of thing I always hope will happen when setting out on a “walk” in the God-wilderness, the uncharted territory which lies beyond the neat streets lined with well-defined churches and mosques and synagogues and temples of all kinds. In that outback, all the signposts point to Uncertainty and all that happens is coincidence and all you need to survive is a mind full of questions, the more imaginative the better, and a stick to draw the answers in the sand, which are immediately swept away to be replaced by others.
    Thank you.

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