The SpatulaShawn Mihalik
We circle a few more blocks, tell some jokes, and pose new riddles we’ve heard. I walk back to Katie’s house after an embarrassing four straight losses to Will’s superior riddle medicine. Dean goes the other way, on a quest for medicine of his own. He promises to bring my jacket by later.
Katie’s door is unlocked, but the place is empty. She’s left a note: Gone to the doctor. Do whatever you want. Love, Katie.
Whatever I want, huh? There are a thousand things to do in Missoula with or without money, but I don’t feel like being out anymore. Katie’s den of slovenly delight clutches at me like a child digging through a pile of puppies. The sink is full of sleeping grimy dishes. The floor is an archipelago of dirty clothes, quilts, and art supplies.
I spot a spatula poking out between couch cushions. I liberate it with one swift tug, recalling Excalibur, and notice it is clean. How a clean spatula got from the kitchen to the couch I will never know. I hold it up to the light. One corner has melted flat from careless usage, a grotesque plastic tumor, a hunchback, a spot of leprosy. I feel its self-conscious gaze.
Oh spatula, you are devastated and deformed, but still as useful as ever. Shall I aspire to impart unto you the secrets of space and time?
So I explain to the spatula that of all the things Katie and I share, the deepest connection is this: we both make a point of trusting the Universe to take care of us. I can’t count how many times money has arrived out of the blue precisely when it was needed, or how often food seemed to barrel down the street in search of some hunger to fill. I know my parents used to live this way, too. At some point you stop—I guess when the novelty wears off, or when you decide it’s just luck and your number’s about to come up.
“But until then, spatula,” I say, “there’s magic ripe for the grabbin’. It’s in the air and it’s attracted to motion.” Somehow this cosmic medicine prefers a moving target. Stick your head out of a car window and you’ll feel a wind, even on the calmest of days. “It’s a Jesus lifestyle, spatula. The son of man has no place to lay his head. He was a nomad who thought people should live in the moment. I’ve met more Atheists on the road living like the man and not even realizing it; and more Christians who’ve devoted their lives to securing a luxurious place to lay their heads.” They live by balance-books, nine-to-fives, and holiday vacations, trapped in schedules and budgets while they sport their WWJD bracelets. But Jesus said not to worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself. “Don’t bury your head in the future, spatula!” I shout, “Don’t fret about heaven and eternal salvation—for eternity is here and salvation is now, not in some abstract tomorrow waiting a ways off down the line. Faith does not save you; faith is salvation. Love does not get us into heaven; love is heaven. To love and hope and believe is to enter immediately through the gates. Don’t confuse the country for the passport, spatula. Don’t mistake the map for the territory. Heaven runs parallel to all premeditated paths. Go one step out of your way to help a stranger and you’re there. You’ve transcended time and space and self. What sort of nebulous eternal realm can compete with that?”
The spatula does not reply. It must be thinking the question over very carefully. I walk to Katie’s desk and push the flat of the spatula against a disheveled stack of papers. I scramble them up a bit. The stack seems in no better or worse order than before.
“Okay, spatula, forget the spiritual side. Just look at it from a practical point of view. An empty wallet is not that bad. Hell, being broke is actually pretty good these days. Most Americans are in debt, and compared to a big fat debt zero is a pretty big number.”
People end up in debt out of fear that they will one day have nothing. But having nothing is so damned cheap.
I think this is why you find the one-day-at-a-time lifestyle in so many unexpected places: folks out on the road, hitchhiking, biking, walking, jostling along in old beat-up cars with great mileage. They realize the universe is full of stuff, and you can go out and open your mouth wide, and as long as you keep walking, the rain will fall in. It’s like Dean’s theory of creation. The more you have, the less you’re open to receive. Possessions ultimately dispossess. Bound and saddled you can no longer move fluidly through a fluid world.
Spatula and I circle the room, blessing objects with a light touch from his gnarled melty corner. We bless a baby doll. Katie has blackened in her eyes, dreaded out her hair, and stapled trinkets to her arms. The front end of a Tonka truck emerges from her stomach. We bless a stuffed moose and a rotting avocado. Each blessed object gets a front row seat on the couch. I’ve lined them all up, dolls, toys, journals, plates, records, stamps, toothpaste, a bottle of witch hazel, a ball of string. Spatula understands now. He has seen the light, and together we propound our holy sermon.
“The people of earth never were cut out for this sedentary lifestyle,” I explain. “Millions of years of evolution, fine tuning these beautiful nomadic legs, and in less than two hundred years we’ve folded them up and put them away under our laptops. We weren’t meant to sit in chairs and hide in holes. The wanderer’s legacy is too strong, too deeply rooted in the DNA, and it will roam whether we like it or not, if not physically then psychologically. If we don’t move our legs, that spirit will smoke and spin and whirl like a clutched axle. The dislodged gears burning up and burning out!”
But what can we do? There’s already so many of us, and more coming down the pipelines every minute. Won’t be long until we top ten billion. We’re running out of room fast. Do we just pack tighter and tighter? Try to sit more still? Or is it possible to maintain momentum in some sort of coordinated way?
My audience hangs on every word. “We need a new method,” I proclaim. “Rugged individualism may have worked out okay on the frontier, but we humans we’re fresh out of frontiers. The world washed us westward until we ran into the farther shore, and then all the rules changed. The system fed back in on itself. We didn’t hit the launch in time.” I keep brushing shoulders with old men running on grumpy because there’s no more wilderness to steal, stockpiling guns as if any arsenal could protect them from the information infrastructure.
Times change. And what I like about Missoula is how she manages to balance on the cusp of change without letting herself drown in it. One foot forward, ready to adapt, one foot firmly rooted where we came from. Missoula is a filter for letting through all the good parts of our steel-nosed pioneer legacy, while driving back the tides of inertia that tend to keep what were once good ideas chugging along past the point of usefulness.
From the couch my congregation nods and smiles as the spirit fills their plastic nooks and ceramic bits. “I have to tell you, my brothers and sisters, I, too, feel the stale rust seeping in. The dread of motion, the dread of standing still. Sometimes I can’t tell which is which and it scares me out of my mind. What if the doors fly open on me—and rather than me going out, something else comes in? What if I stay in one place too long and the rest of the world rushes on without me? What if in my haste it dissolves into nothingness?” As if it all weren’t already some dream.
And what the hell would I do, anyway, if I ever found a place suitable to stay put? Would I settle down? Cook breakfast? Sleep under the stars? Find a woman. Build a cabin. Grow old. Die. I could spend the rest of my life looking for that perfect view overlooking some ideal patch of grass on which to settle in and sink slowly beneath the weeds. The rush of the wind, a gentle rain. These icons of what it means to have been alive in a world. Surrounded by the trinkets of our past, the towers of unopened boxes packed tight with so many memorable days never again brought to mind. Then at last, tucked-in best as can be, to etch that moment onto a gravestone and experience nothing more forever.
My arm drops to my side. The spatula slips from my grasp and finds a new home on the floor between a beanbag chair and a milk crate. I don’t even remember what point I was trying to make.
I stare at Katie’s disaster of an apartment; realizing that the chaotic placement of all these particles came from a catalog of tiny decisions, brief moments of near-intention. Euphoria floods my brain, brought on by a frenzy of solitude, and at this very instant I think I could die content. That’s the signpost of pure bliss. That’s when you know it can’t get any better.
But it doesn’t last. The moment you reach the top of the mountain, there’s just so much ogling over the panorama before it’s time to climb back down. Instead of dying I turn on some music and sit down on the couch among the congregation. Before long the song ignites my restless legs. I don’t just want to sit around waiting for life to come to me. Should I walk to the door and open it? Nothing out there but the whole entire world. Nothing but footsteps and a million roads going everywhere. Confusion, headaches, heartaches mixed in. It’s a symptom of freedom to be enslaved by endless possibility.
So I pick up a brush and dip it in the oil and I smear stupid purple lines on a piece of paper.
Life is governed by the hours, and the hours are governed by the sun. The sun is governed by immeasurable spaces between the tiny vibrations of matter. I should be so small, to look outward with longing eyes, so that everything I see becomes vast potentiality. But if I am the sum of my experiences, then I am also the clouds, the mountains, the television, slivers under the skin turning animals into cyborgs, reconstructing world from world, smushing putty under the thumb and then stretching again to plod through the leeward side of the tip of my tongue.
Fuck it. I’m going out.