How We Got Here
I wrote Here and Now several years ago. It was the culmination of decades of thought.
The first step occurred when I was ten and I went looking for God. My family was steeped in problems – sexual abuse, violence, alcoholism – and in primary school fashion, I decided that I needed help. Big help. The biggest help I could imagine was God. In Sunday school, we were taught that God was everywhere. So, following the logic, I searched for him on the section of my hometown that I knew best. I went looking for God on my paper route.
I did not find God there.
I did, however, meet some incredible wisdom figures such as a local priest and my scoutmaster. Nevertheless, as helpful as they were in their own, very different, ways, they were no replacement for God.
I kept searching. I felt kooky doing it, thus I never talked about it. But I kept at it.
Years later, meeting Manya in Asia – and experiencing fascinating talks on our dates that stretched for hours – sitting on the steps of a palatial National Symphony Hall at midnight, for example, discussing, say, the women of the Bible – I learned from her reactions to my search that perhaps I wasn’t such a kook, after all.
Indeed, as our own relationship stretched years in the making, she began teasing me. She said that she expected me to someday write a great work of religio-historical significance. She always said this with a teasing twinkle in her eye at the same time as the lovely timbre of her voice communicated serious intent.
All those years of watching me dig deeply into the great faith traditions of humanity inspired her. All those years of watching me spelunk the caverns of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism, even (to a lesser extent) Judaism and Islam. All those years of watching my questions, and answers, increase in complexity – and, ultimately, simplicity.
But to write a great work of religio-historical significance? What business does a hayseed from a broken home in northern Wisconsin have presuming to play in such prestigious fields? To tackle the questions of ultimate meaning: Who is God? Who are we? Are we in relationship? If not, what then?
Nevertheless – as I am certain you’ve noticed from time to time – the love of another can drive us to climb the highest of peaks. No matter what the rest of the world may think.
Finally, I did. I wrote Here and Now. And it was surprisingly easy for me. (Apparently, all those torturously slow decades of chewing on a subject yields results, in time.)
One of my first artistic decisions – given the complexity of the material – was to take a tool from Jesus’ kit. He used simple parables to communicate his intricate ideas. Moreover, we live in the Visual Age now. So, I taught myself to draw comics, then created a plucky cartoon character named Thrashin’ Jack who adventured through the pages accompanied by Lotus, his precocious ginger tabby. It was a winning combo. Early readers adored Thrashin’ Jack. They even loved that his skateboard featured a melting ice cream cone, to express the brevity of time.
All in all, the work was deemed a success.
And then the storm clouds rolled in.
We created a foundation to help people find fulfillment. It stood to reason. Given that we created God – and not the other way around – what do we do with our lives? We find the fullest expression of meaning that we can with the time we have. Then, too, given that we are, each, unique, fulfillment looks vastly different to each one of us.
So far, so good.
But, how to figure out what fulfillment looks like, given that we are unique? I designed the concept of small groups meeting regularly, supporting each other, to help each participant figure that out. The groups had a process of asking, of listening, of thinking, of encouraging, and of checking back to see how things worked out.
They proved an utter failure.
We learned through the process that people love the idea of searching for their own fulfillment – for about three weeks. After that, reality kicks in. Talking about the changes they realize they need to make to find that fulfillment is one thing. Doing it? At that point – movies, songs, trips, love affairs, vodka – anything diverting suddenly grows so much more appealing.
We are humans, after all.
In the meantime, Manya and I went back to the drawing board. I was meant for this somehow, right?
To inspire everyone still involved, I decided on a spectacle. I would hike 750 miles from Stevens Pass in Washington across four states to end at Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. At the geyser, I would dare God to strike me down with lightning.
Chutzpah, right? Some were really quite upset at the whole business. Me? I wasn’t worried in the slightest about getting smacked with lightning.
No. Of far more immediate concern was the practical question of whether I could whip my middle-aged body into shape enough to carry well over a hundred pounds on my back for twenty-five to thirty miles a day uphill and down. Shoot, the first day we purchased the legendary hiking boots, I scraped the backs of my heels off walking just two miles!
Nevertheless, through training over time, the miles began to increase in number. I remember hiking to the Ballard Locks and back – eight miles – was a big day for me. I remember hiking the Burke Gilman Trail to Lake Washington and back – another big day. Eventually, I settled on a training route that stretched twelve and a half miles. There was a humble park bench, faded with age, at the end point. I would sit there after reaching it, resting, contemplating the twelve and a half miles that remained going back. There was even a LFH (ie Last Fucking Hill) on the training route that used to make me whimper in pain.
Did I mention that there was no following car? This was a solitary hike. Thus, Manya assembled a logistics team that planned out drop points to which they could ship me ramen and instant oatmeal (the lightest foods we could think of). She also assembled a media team, who reached out to local outlets along the way for coverage.
The day came – my 48th birthday – and I was off. The next forty days and nights would feature extremes of heat, including broken records for soaring temperatures in Washington which threw me into heat stroke, freezing rains in the foothills of the Rockies that numbed my fingers into frustrating helplessness and my thoughts into states of insensibility. Of course, the worst moments occurred when I was entirely alone with help miles away and no way of reaching out for it. There were injuries that put me down, delaying the hike, times when the map proved wrong and I ran out of water with hours to go. Yet, such challenges hardened my will. There truly was no other choice.
As I rang up milestone successes, however, the media exposure proved a bust. The reporters might think I was interesting, their editors did not. The honest ones explained their viewers would go nuts – or worse – if they covered some fool daring God to strike him with lightning. This vast spectacle designed to go viral passed largely in silence.
Then, too, their fear got Manya down. The locals may have God in plenty in the Rockies. They also have guns. Or, as she finally put it when I was nearing Yellowstone, “God and lightning is one thing. Some crazy taking pot shots at you is another.”
In the end, I yielded. At the geyser, instead of daring God to do anything, I made a speech about how I wanted a world without war (which was true). And that was that. The spectacle ended a failure.
Deeply disappointed, I walked away from what I was meant to be. Was I afraid? Was I using the early failures as an excuse not to try? It’s likely.
Years passed. I worked on various projects. Writing shorter pieces, flirting with social media though I knew I wasn’t snarky enough. I wrote a beautiful novel about the first Blatina President – that struggles to find a publisher though I believe it will. I even ran for Congress, which ended badly as we learned I lack that ruthless bone so highly prized in our leaders.
One day Manya lost patience and wiped the board clean.
“We weren’t ready last time,” she said. “Now we are.”
She was right.
Jeff Stilwell Biography
Jeff Stilwell excels at the unexpected. Not content with his Midwestern roots, he found ways on the cheap to explore the wider world including selling gummy bears in high school to visit the Alps of central Europe.n To pay for college, he worked a slime line as a head chopper in the clammy tundra of Alaska.
His thirst for adventure next took him to Asia where he studied Asian philosophy and the martial arts while exploring exotic locales including the Himalayas and the lands of Lord Jim, even surviving a squall in the Gulf of Siam.
His years in Asia deeply influenced his lifelong search for meaning, culminating later in his magnum opus Here and Now: A Whimsical Take On God. In this illustrated work, his adorable cartoon character Thrashin’ Jack leads the reader on the skateboard journey of humanity’s creation of God. Readers find Here and Now “simple yet profound” and “something that can be read in minutes, and thought about for a lifetime.”
In Asia, Stilwell also met and wooed his wife, jewelry designer Manya Vee, winning her heart by following her to Java. She taught him to gallop bareback at the family farm in the storied Yakima Valley, the inspiration for his first novel Fighting for Eden – where readers found “a heartfelt story” in which “one finds their own Eden and their own truth.”
Ever restless, he once completed a solitary 750-mile hike from Stevens Pass in Western Washington to end, a Biblical-sounding forty days later, at Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park.
If it’s big, Stilwell has dreamt it, attempted it, or achieved it.