I am flat on my back – again. Today I’m just taking a picture. Most times, though, it is a position of defeat, of humiliation. On my back, I see the world differently. The bed and the sofa don’t count. Reclining the seat in my car doesn’t count. The few places where we are supposed to lounge and sprawl and unwind on our backs give us nothing. Getting so drunk I can’t get off the kitchen floor counts. Having a medical event on the sidewalk, where numbers of strangers lean over my head and look down into my anguished face, yeah, that counts. Getting knocked down counts. And what I am doing today counts. It may not count as much because I am doing it on purpose, or, maybe, it counts even more. But if the goal is to see things differently, it counts.
Oddly, I never seem to notice what’s above me first. The dog hair that dodged a broom. The gritty texture of asphalt. Other people’s shoelaces. How often do you ever look at someone else’s shoelaces? Today, I see and feel a soft blanket of crunchy leaves. A few sticks poke me. I run my hands through the leaves and feel the moisture of the earth. An ant and other creeping things carry about their day as if there is nothing unusual about a man lying down on the ground.
Being on your back is a lonely place. It is a place of brokenness and dependence – the homeless and begging. It is a place for the diseased – remember the paralytic carried on his mat. It is a place the world robs, despises, and then ignores – that poor sap who was beaten going from Jerusalem to Jericho. No one, at least normal people, lies on their backs in public places. (Parks and college campuses and beaches don’t count either.)
Out of the ground and on our backs God made us. So, we are grounded and rooted to our genuine selves by being knocked out, dragged down, and put in our place – flat on our backs. That’s where we came from, and if we haven’t been on our backs since, that’s where we’ll end up; and there we will stay. Ashes to ashes, back to back.
I finally look up and see the trees curl around the vault of heaven, which is covered with thick clouds anyway. On my back, the world seems monochromatic. Rivulets of bleached sky trek through the canopy. The branching trees strike me instantly metaphorical. A sort of map of possibilities left behind. Things that could have been, or, should’ve been. The proverbial road not taken. And I know it is only from the broken place on my back that I can understand: it doesn’t matter. When I stand up and collect my things, when I drive back home and resume my life, the world will become too important for me to realize that the world doesn’t matter. I won’t remember how tiny a speck I am. How utterly insignificant I am. In a handful of more decades, if nothing else goes wrong, the prickly textures I feel with the palms of my hand will gobble me whole and erase me completely. But here, on my back, this isn’t a statement of despair. It is revelation.
Jesus, flat on his back in a tomb hewed out of rock, looked through his dead eyes and saw the cracked stone and trapped spiders. Jesus, I believe, was present in his death – the ultimate place of weakness and unimportance. So, I try to see just the furrowed, blocky bark of the live oaks, the slipping of rainclouds between the branches, and hear children playing a game of tag. I try to be present in the low that God chose, which ironically shames the healthy, wise, and wealthy.
And then this place of vulnerability becomes a place of peace. On my back, I don’t care that no one likes my post on Facebook or that I get turned down by agents and rejected by literary journals. Loneliness becomes solitude. And the solitude becomes a place of solidarity with the One who created me. The trunk of the tree, fixed forever behind me, ascends me into the same wispy clouds that carried Jesus up. This moment, if I just stay in this moment, is joy. The goal of life, if there must be a goal, is to transform this lying down posture into a state of being. I am back. I have returned to the goodness I was originally created to enjoy.
Then I get up, knowing I will have to do it again.