I am four years old and my tummy hurts.
My belly button sits in the center of a circle of pain. At first I thought the pain was in me because I couldn't poopoo. That has been a problem in the past for me. I would hold it in and hold it in and hold it in (I have a very strong will, you see), and eventually the poopoo would stay put by itself for a very long time.
I know now that this is called constipation, and it is not a good thing. It hurts and makes my middle feel as hard a tree trunk until the poopoo finally comes out, and then all is better.
This tummy fire is not that. My poopoo comes out, but still I hurt. Still the circle of pain with my belly button in the middle burns and burns and burns.
I tell my parents, and they look at me with frown faces and stroke my head and feed me sweetened cream from our goat and tell me that sometimes our thoughts make fires in our tummies.
I listen to them. I empty my mind of all thoughts and pray. When I do this, I feel the good warmth prayer always brings me. I see the dancing lights in the sky that call back to me in words I can't understand but think I used to know. I feel my heart become one with the center of the earth. I sense my mind encircle every star shining through my window in the night.
But still my tummy burns. The pain will not be pushed away. Instead it pushes itself into my prayers. It pushes itself into my prayers like a strong man who will not be tied up, a wild man who tears the ropes that bind him and forces his way into a house so he can rob its owner of its riches.
The pain breaks in and plunders me, and I wake up not knowing that I had fallen asleep in the first place. I do not feel rested. I feel as if all night I have done battle in my sleep.
My tummy hurts, and it won't stop, so my parents take me to my Auntie Liz. She is very wise and very old, but she usually doesn't do much with me. She just lets me play and watches what I do. She asks me to draw pictures, to just draw what I am thinking and feeling in the moment, and I do it for her.
I draw pictures that are crazy and extreme and not in agreement with one another. It is like I draw daytime and then I snap my fingers and draw night. It is all very confusing and split-headed.
I draw human hearts pierced by arrows. I draw tall buildings falling on screaming people below. I draw sheep stripped not only of their wool, but also of their skin.
Yet I also draw family dinners with people laughing at jokes whose funniness never fades. I draw great crowds of people dancing alongside the speaking lights in the sky I see when I pray. I draw a father and a son hugging so tightly that it is hard to tell where the son's arms end and the father's arms begin.
These are the things I mean to draw, but I don't know if this is what my Auntie sees in my drawings. I do not know if my artwork communicates my pain to her. I am only a child, after all.
But I think the art probably speaks rightly to her because I am a good drawer. When I doodle with a stick in the dirt during recess at school, the other kids almost always gather and stare in silence at my drawings.
And, even more than this, when Auntie sees my drawings, she picks me up and cradles me like a little baby in her arms. She holds me desperately against her breast, and I let her, even though I am not a baby.
She holds me and rocks me and says, "Oh, Josh, oh Josh, oh, Sweet Boy. Peace. Peace be with you, Baby. The pure in heart shall see God. The pure in heart shall see God. Oh, Josh, oh Josh, oh My Love."
In the waves of her motion and emotion, I forget my tummy fire for a few moments. It doesn't last.
Even at the age of four I spend a lot of with my Father in his workshop out behind our house. I am sly, and so he doesn't notice often, but I spend more time watching his face as he leans in over his craft than I spend paying attention to the small tasks to which he asks me to attend.
Father is sanding the rough spots smooth on a great wooden entry door for a very wealthy client. The door is one of a set of ten, each door unique and custom-made. Each one demands much time and great skill from Father. The price of the rare wood the client demands for each door boggles my mind.
I say, "Father, each of these ten doors is very expensive, and you are making ten before the client even pays for one. I'm worried. What if the client's heart becomes hard toward you, and he does not pay all of what he owes?"
"Son, Master Bartholomew will pay me a portion each month until a year is past, and then all will have been paid in full. Fear not, Son. Fear not."
"I trust you, Father. I trust you. I just worry. That’s all." This is what I say to him.
And then he smiles and says to me, "Such a mind you have. Already pondering the perils of business and credit. And of faithfulness and risk."
Father begins to settle back into his work, but then he stops, gestures to the window where a pigeon is resting on the sill, and asks, "Son, do you see that bird?"
I tell him that I do. I tell him there is no way I could not see it. I smile and tell him that I'm afraid it may poop on Master Bartholomew's expensive door. He laughs, but he insists on pursuing his lesson nonetheless.
"But do you see what the bird means, Son? You see so much, but do you see what it means? It is provided for by The Lord. The bird can't use a hammer or cut a clean line, but it has what it needs. And you think The Lord's going to leave us - leave you - high and dry? I mean, please, Son. Please. No chance of that."
I blush. I know he is not cross with me. He is, in fact, joking with me like I was with him. But Father is also teaching me, and I know he teaches truth. Yet my tummy still burns as Father, thoroughly pleased with his wit and wisdom, turns back to his wood.
I watch my Father work, and I know he loves me, but I also see how caring for me is a responsibility that weighs heavy upon him. I see this as clearly as I see the bird. I feel this awful truth as powerfully as I sense his love for me. The weight of me is a mill stone tied around his neck.
I watch my Father, and it is hard to capture in words, but I can hear his heart speak its secrets to me, secrets I think I should never know. But I do know them. I hear his heart, not by a trick of the mind or the power of a dark magic, but by the force of my observation.
Father can saw open a block of wood with skilled hands that are steady and true. Although I struggle to give even the slightest control to a saw as it cuts through wood, I can open Father’s soul cleanly and almost without effort. This makes me afraid sometimes.
Once, while Father was teaching me to hammer a nail, I opened his sould and paid too much attention to his heart as it worried after me. I did not pay enough attention to my work. I hit my thumb and it crunched and bled. I watched my blood mix with the blonde skin of the stripped wood, and the colors overwhelmed me. I felt my pain and Father's pain for me rolled into one. I fainted and was glad that I did.
Father’s eyes are on the wood, but his heart is still on me. He is thinking about my teeth. I have sloppy, vulnerable, and malformed teeth. He has strong teeth -- even and white and unbroken. He is worried for me and for the pain I will face because of my teeth and because of other more powerful things that lurk around the corners of a future I can't yet see. And neither can he.
A sharp bite from my tummy catches me unaware, and I let out a low moan. Father hears it. He looks up at me. He grimaces in a way that matches my own face. Then he puts down his tools, walks over to me, takes my hands in his, and kneels before me so that our eyes are on an equal level.
He looks into my eyes, looks away for a moment, bashfully I think, and then his eyes return to mine. He says, "Son, you are a pearl of great price to me. I would sell all I have, give all that I am, for you. Do you believe this?"
"Good. Very good."
The fire in my tummy cools for a moment. I forget it for a while. And this is good, very good.
It is night and I am in my bed praying for sleep to descend and obliterate me.
I hear a voice within my head speaking to me. The voice says that I worry too much (as if I didn't know this already). The voice tells me that when I worry I release this liquid called hydrochloric acid within me. The voice tells me that this acid works with a small monster in my tummy called a pylori. The voice tells me that the acid and the monster work together to eat the flesh within my belly. The voice tells me that the acid makes a wound that will fester and bleed and stab me from within. The voice tells me that I am silly and stupid and should just stop worrying.
I tell the voice that telling me not to worry is like telling me not to think of a purple sheep. I tell the voice that if you tell me not to think of a purple sheep, I will of course think of a purple sheep. I tell the voice to talk to me of love because love douses the fire, if only for a little while.
The voice tells me that this is not the path a young man of my stature should take to deal with his problems. The voice tells me that it will show me the way for a powerful person like me to win a lasting peace. The voice tells me it is happy to show me the way, if I am simply willing to let him teach me.
Instead I decide to stare out the window of my room and watch the stars and wait for them to sing. And, finally, they do. And, finally, sleep falls and claims me.
I look at my mother. We are in the kitchen. Mother is kneading bread on the counter. I watch her press the dough with fingers firm and soft. Their every movement communicates care. She sings a quietly of dreams and God and chains falling away. I watch her knead the bread and think of the way Mother once moved and pressed my own body as she cleaned my backside and sang her freedom songs.
She is young, but her hair is as white as fresh milk. Her hair is not like that of the other young mothers who come in the evening and gather my friends from the back alley where we wrestle, kick balls, and shape small figures out of the mud. The other mothers all possess hair that's as black as raven's wings. Perhaps on one or two of them there is a wisp of gray. But my Mother's hair is a blinding white, a summer cloud rising above her brows.
I asked Mother about her hair once. She told me her hair was like no other young mother's hair because she'd seen things no other mother – young or old – had ever seen. Then she laughed so long and deep that the force of its wave caught me up and I too began to laugh and the fire within my belly stilled, flickered, and faded.
I am almost thirty-four years old. My gut still burns. Like so many other things, I have learned how to bend it to my will, and most of the time it yields to my wishes.
But it does not always respond because its fiery wail is a broken part of my love, and my love is myself. And, even more, it is God. I can translate energy into matter and back again, but still so very often my belly blazes with worry, compassion, and pain. I have learned it can be no other way, and that this is ultimately good.
I am eating dinner with my friends. There are hard things ahead, both for me and for them. But there are also bright and beautiful things. I choose to rest my spirit upon the latter and the searing with me quiets a little.
I look down at the dinner table with the picked-over loaf of bread and the cup of red wine sitting upon it. I think about Mother in her kitchen and Father in his workshop. I think of the history of my people and the future of God. I think of who I am and what I am to do. I take the bread and the cup in my hands and I speak.
My gut hurts as it always has, but still I speak. I speak of love, and the fire is stilled by a greater flame that burns but does not consume.