Aerobics

On road trips, it is important to adapt. I just finished hopping around for 30 minutes in this guest house, urged on by a British man and two scantily clad women on YouTube. As is often the case, the women were silent, but they kept the beat. God sat on the edge of the bed, observing this ritual. My upper arms will be sore tomorrow because I do not routinely wave them around like that. I prefer the treadmill or the great outdoors.

“You’re always welcome to join in,” I say to God, as I wipe sweat droplets from the floor.

“Kinda busy,” God mumbles and turns to the map of the world on the wall.

I follow her gaze and feel the familiar plummet of significance. Not counting disputed regions, for now there are 195 independent (and artificially defined) nations on earth, populated by over seven billion of us. None exactly like me, but all of them a twinkle in God’s eye and a pain in God’s neck. All of them a whisper. Each of them a vision just out of reach.

“Remember,” God says. “The map is not the territory.” I do remember. Albert Korzybski, a Polish-American thinker, said that a century ago. Wise man, but still. Maps are something, right?

I grab my jacket and invite God along for a stroll in the park with the puppy and me. “Already there,” God says. I knew that, but I thought I’d ask. The proportionality of God is the issue. The map on the wall is a flat reminder of a round planet in serious trouble. Many of the flags along the bottom include red. I hold out hope that bleeding isn’t necessary, and weapons are not the final answer.

God sighs. “You left the key in the car and the car unlocked last night,” she says. “Might want to lock up on your way to the park.”

“Might not,” I say. “I like it when nothing happens.”

“Right,” God says with an eye-roll. “Your choice. A safe car is not a blessing. A stolen car is not a curse. Just so you have that straight.”

Of course, I don’t have that straight. I’m human. I manufacture imaginary blessings like that unstolen car all the time. “Sure thing,” I say to God with false bravado. “I get it. You had nothing to do with the car being safe.”

“That’s not what I said,” God says. “It’s just that I hate riding along in stolen cars, but I won’t blame you if that’s what I need to do. I’ll ride. I always ride. Even when it’s only a minor traffic violation, not a stolen car.”

“You ridin’ black or white?” I ask.

“Black,” God said. “Black and male. If they shoot me, call my mother, will you?”

I’ve not spoken with God’s mother for a while. I nod. “I will,” I say, imagining the cosmic grief the call would inflict. “But do you have to take such risks?” God gives me a disappointed look. “Yeah,” she says firmly. “Yeah. I do.”

Caramel Sauce

I

“God,” I said. “Could you pass the caramel sauce?” We were enjoying bowls of vanilla bean ice cream. It seemed a small request, so when God grabbed the jar, tipped it to his lips, and chugged the contents, I was astonished. Caramel doesn’t usually flow like milk, but God’s hand was so hot, the sweet sluggish sauce thinned, and he gulped it down, just like that.

God put the empty jar in front of me, looking decidedly sick. My ice cream melted as I stared at him and considered what to say or do. Clearly, this wasn’t about the caramel. Was this a lesson? A parable? A joke? Had God lost his mind? Was God going to throw up? It looked possible, so I slid our silver garbage can toward him.

Sure enough, up it came. God dropped to his knees, clutching the garbage can, retching and sweating, pale as a ghost. The smell of caramel-tinged stomach acid wafted through the air. I wanted to move discretely away, but I would’ve had to step over him. It is never wise to step over the heaving body of God, so I waited.

And waited. I was trying to remember the symptoms of rabies. There were bits of foam on the sides of God’s mouth, and he looked miserably deranged. Why had I asked for that caramel sauce? My ice cream was fine without it. Why do I ask for anything? As minutes gave way to hours, God swelled into swarms of bees, throngs of refugees, herds of cattle, sprouting seeds, and the vast undulating sky. The soft perimeter of what appeared to be reality gave way and I began to fall. “This could be my final fall,” I thought to myself as the lanolin scent of wool filled my nostrils. But it was not my final fall. Not my last bowl of ice cream.

II

In the wake of the caramel incident, God has been more circumspect. “I may not be as stable as I think I am,” she admitted. “Maybe I need more rest.”

“But you’re the definition of rest,” I countered, hesitant to upset her but unwilling to let go of my favorite idea about God. God stared straight ahead. Words ground to a halt and the long overdue ice age arrived.

We froze solid, but God’s eyes burned from within the glacial temple. Brightly winged beings touched smoldering coals to my lips and lifted the sun back into place. This was good. In fact, this was perfect. I had raspberries to transplant, and they need the sun. There’s nothing better than raspberry sauce from the hardy heirloom varieties I love so much.

Co-Author Explodes Again

My co-author blew up yesterday. This happens when realities clash or there are temperature extremes. First, hairline cracks appear in God’s image–like they do in cement when you’ve poured a slab but failed to make the relief cuts required to handle the stress of shrinkage. The cracks widen into fissures. The rumbling grows into thunderous protests working their way up from the bottom of soul. And then as they say in the comics: Ka-boom. The Confetti of God swirls in the sky while bits of fuselage and bone drift down. It can have a chilling effect, so I usually position myself in direct sunlight and wait. Sometimes I add a layer or two of outerwear. Right now, I have on pajamas and two fleece vests.

In a little while, I’ll start picking up the pieces–carefully and without judgement. That’s not to say I won’t cry, but for now, I can handle it. God has strange ways of saying “I love you.” I try to allow for the idiosyncrasies involved in our intimate but elusive relationship. There are other ways I could make it through life but none of them are very appealing.

While I wait, the little gods wash downstream like easy plastic, insisting on their right to kill the dolphins and coral reef. The bigger gods don’t float. They’re a series of bad ideas that reposition their fat hinnies after each disruption, causing damaging aftershocks, gluttonous wealth, and great misery.

A manifestation of Nothing is caught in the crystal formation to my left. “Hello, God.” I say, as I watch the same sun at work, warming what will always be Nothing as it warms my vested, innocent shoulders. “Why do I feel so guilty?”

The Voice of God is green and unbelievably forgiving. The Eyes of God are as reassuring as last year’s nest blown down, still lined with soft feathers plucked from the underbelly of creation. The ways I defend myself are ineffective over the long haul and the ways I try to care for other aspects of creations…equally so. Maybe that’s why God needs to explode, but I don’t like it. The responsibilities for reassembling weigh me down.

“They weigh me down, too,” God tells me, as we slide westward, following the light and warmth, stiff from chronic disappointments and damaged joints. “There seems to be no end to the adjustments required.”

“I know,” I say. “That’s why I’m glad you invented Sabbath. Let’s rest a bit. I’ll put you back together tomorrow.”

“Sounds good,” God agrees. And we curl into the perfect fractal for an afternoon nap.

Did We Begin on the Seventh Day, When God Dozed Off?

God’s creative management style is not one I’d recommend for small or even large businesses. And I am not saying that behind her back; she’s sitting right here, watching me examine the dust on the mirror. I like mirrors, but they get very dusty. She listens with rapt attention as I mutter about hatred and cruelty and offer critical analysis of her most irritating creatures. The marvel and madness of God is that she is patient, permissive, and absolute. She cares little about insults, greatly about suffering, and allows all things and beings to spin on their wobbly, narcissistic axes until they’ve spun themselves out.

I offer her the keyboard. She refuses. I offer her the day. She laughs.

 “Nah,” she says. “I have so many days I don’t know what to do with them all. And anyway, the day you’re offering is already mine.” This is true, but also it isn’t. I blow on the mirror and watch a few particles of dust shift around. She looks on, hands folded in her enviable lap–a lap that is a cave, a womb–a lap that’s a luxury apartment in Manhattan, a well-built hut in the Congo, the cab of a semi with an alert and friendly driver capable of backing up without a second thought.

“And she’s off,” God says, making fun of my fantasies. This time, I laugh, delighted at the twinkle in God’s eye.

“Laps are great, aren’t they?” I say. “My friend had a dream that she had a horse on her lap. Imagine that.” God already knows this dream, but we enjoy the story anyway.

Once in a long while, when God’s in a tough place, I hold her on my lap and let her be small, but I’ve never held a full-grown horse.

“It’s always what you can handle,” God says. “Until you can’t.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Dreams are some other language. Flying dreams are the best, but mostly, I fall off ledges, try to save helpless children, and find hidden rooms in buildings I’m remodeling.”

“I know,” God says. “It’s confusing.”

I consider that for minute and then ask, “Well, why don’t you let people dream what they want to dream?”

“Oh, I do,” God says. “I absolutely do.” I look skeptical but say nothing. The inner, the outer; the brain, the mind. At the heart of the great mystery, is it simply random synaptic firings? Did God invent evolution for fun? Did we begin on the seventh day, when God dozed off? Are we the dream? The particles of dust on my mirror? The coming and going of migratory birds?

“Yes!” God says. And the twinkle in her eye explodes into blinding light. I fumble my way to that lap where I know I am being dreamed and settle in, migratory and alert.

Revenge is an Autoimmune Disorder

Lately I’ve been creating words with great deliberation because I’ve voluntarily immobilized some of my fingers with a splint to reduce the pain of a swollen joint. And I am unreasonably enraged. Every keystroke counts. Every option must be carefully considered. That’s how old this has all become: God and I exist almost beyond recognition, agitated by self-imposed limits and unrealistic longings as arbitrary and simplistic as the arrival of spring.

“Dear God,” I say, in a voice laced with ice. “Is there anything that would be enough?”

“No,” God answers, unapologetic. ”It’s more about hunger. Less about satiation.”

“But isn’t there a way to set the table so people get their just deserts?” I think my play on words is pretty funny.

“Depends on the menu,” God says, going with the analogy but staying on the serious side.

“Revenge,” I say, unwisely honest. “Revenge is on my menu today. Injury. Insult. Revenge.”

“Oh,” God says. “So that’s what you’re shopping for. Those aren’t commodities I distribute directly. But I can make some recommendations.”

“No thanks,” I say. “I’ve got reliable dealers.”

“I’m sure you do,” God says. “But time is short. Sleep in white sheets and don’t decorate to deceive.”

I consider this bizarre advice. The wounds I wish to inflict have surfaced in my joints and sinews. They limit my range of motion; they dwarf my imagination.

“God,” I say. “Doesn’t everyone decorate to deceive? And why worry about sheets?”

Sometimes, God explains. Sometimes God does not. As we sit quietly, it seems likely this is one of those times I’ll be stuck trying to explain things to myself. But after a moment, God adds, “Revenge is an autoimmune disorder.” He removes the splint, takes my hands, anoints them with coconut oil, kisses each swollen knuckle, and turns my palms up. I see down through the calloused layers of my life.

“If you sleep nude on white sheets, the colors of your dead skin leave distinct markings. Like a map—a recognition. A way forward.” God says. “It is good to shed dead skin. Good to leave evidence of your slow, distinct transformations.”

“But sometimes, I don’t want to transform, God. I want to get my offenders by the neck and do some transforming of my own.”

“Me, too,” God says. But he continues to hold my hands. Slowly, I move God’s hands up to my neck, cover God’s hands with mine, and wait. There is a pulsating warmth but no pressure. Then God gently slides his hands free and puts them around his own neck which has become a Giant Sequoia.

“I can’t reach,” I say.

“I know,” God says. “And I’m O.K. with that.”

Gifts

God’s car crept down our gravel lane as the evening light faded. I could see the headlights of the old Subaru dipping into the deep spring potholes that cause me such great vexation. We’ve spent an enormous amount of time and money on our roads, but it’s a constant fight. They stay smooth a nanosecond, and then the ruts reappear, the gravel sluffs off, the rain and snow do their thing, and the surface deteriorates. Nature likes neither straight lines nor smooth roads.

The Subaru backed in beside the new garage–the one that nearly blew down in the gale-force winds last month. God got out, stretched, opened all four doors, and lifted the tailgate. The car was packed to the brim with what appeared to be nicely wrapped gifts, but twilight was so thick I wasn’t sure. I grabbed my boots and my well-worn vest, a thick hat, and some ratty mittens. We’ve had a few warm days, but it drops well below freezing by nightfall.

“Hi, God,” I yelled as I stepped out the porch door. “Could you use some help?” I walked toward the car. God was bent over, body halfway into the back seat.

“Oh, hello,” God said, her head snapping up. “Happy Birthday! I was going to surprise you.”

I was instantly wary. My birthday is months away, and God knows this better than anyone. Something was up. “You’re early,” I said. “By about seven months.”

God grinned and filled my arms with odd, misshapen packages. I started toward the house, but God said, “Wait, Sweetie. The party’s out here.” We rolled river stones into a circle, and she built a fire out of fallen branches and rotting wood. Then the party commenced. God clapped and sang as I unwrapped the gifts, one by one, sobbing and laughing. The pain was equal to the joy, the absurdity of the blaze lightened the sadness of the ever-shrinking River, and I found that the Great Mysteries aren’t as menacing when shrouded with gratitude, perfectly situated in endless sky.

The embers were still glowing when God stood up and said, “Well, I better get going. That lane of yours is something. I can only drive about two miles an hour in this old rig.”

“Yeah, sorry,” I said, hypnotized by the fire. “It’s a never-ending battle. We’ll keep working on it.” I didn’t want God to leave or the party to end, but I know that’s how things work. I watched as the smoke followed God to the car. Then I managed to get to my feet, turn from flames, and say, “Thanks for coming, God. This was amazing.”

God got in, switched on the headlights, and rolled down the window to wave good-bye. “You bet,” she said. “Thanks for being home.”

Tender

God jokes around so much it’s tempting to think that maybe the whole damn universe is a plaything: an elaborate war game, a psychological thriller, a slo-mo drama for the viewing pleasure of a warped creator. Look around. There’s a decent chance we’re on our way to extinction or global misery so ubiquitous that many will wish we were already extinct. Every day, I fight off the satanic seduction of the glib slogans or easy answers generated by the hateful to justify greed.

It’s wild turkey mating season. The turkeys in the yard are flirtatious, energized in the ways of turkeys in heat. Generally, I don’t admire turkeys, but they’re scrappy and they adapt. I suspect cockroaches and turkeys will outlast most other species on earth. In Montana, wild turkey mating season coincides with our efforts to legislate. Both are awkward to observe.

Who can carry guns, where, and why are questions in play. Even though God is allowed to pack, weapons are not the answer. Spread randomly among the populace, they provide neither safety nor security. Yes, they provide a means of killing. But from what I can tell, God is not a big fan of killing or even of self-defense. Self-sacrifice, yes. Self-defense, no. This is very hard to contemplate. Maybe God’s creation has a lot of humorous quirks embedded to make life a little more mysterious, but it is very, very unlikely God approves of killing in God’s name–or anyone’s name.

How do I know this?

In one of my unfinished novels, the main character’s name is Tender. An unusual name for a strapping young man, the son of a tall American soldier. But his Korean mother liked the sound and meaning as she considered various English words to name this unlikely offspring. Of course, I’m the author of this novel, so I invented this Korean mother and named her child myself.

Tender: Fragile, sensitive, easily hurt, often bruised, gentle: the tender green of newly sprouted seeds. With my ranch background, tender also means easy to chew. A tender cut of beef, vegetables cooked until they’re tender… And then there’s the transactional meaning; you can tender your resignation—always a tempting option. And finally, there’s legal tender–anything recognized by law as a means to settle debt or meet a financial obligation.

The novel isn’t finished and may never be. This is due in part to the fact that God emerged from the pages, and I realized God’s name is Tender, and it frightened me. It still does. God is gentle and kind, easily bruised, willing to let us flounder and resign from even our most basic human duties. God sprouts vulnerable in the deep purple light. And God steps in repeatedly to settle serious debt. Sure, God jokes around. God chases turkeys. God rocks herself to sleep among a million spinning planets. But this is the awful truth; one of God’s names is Tender.

Joy

“Hey God,” I said as I stared at two chairs I plan to transform. “Is there joy in magenta?” God was stretched out on the couch, reading an old New Yorker. He lowered the magazine.

“Come again?” He made a point of looking at me attentively.

“Joy,” I said. “What is it?” For a simple, three-letter word, joy is surprisingly agile and elusive. Sometimes, I get a rush of joy from certain pigments. Other times, everything clashes. I give thanks for primer. New canvases. Old chairs. Starting over.

God raised himself to one elbow. He’s long and thin today. “Honey, fragments of joy are visitations–temporary indwellings. The chemicals involved for temporal beings like you aren’t stable. In fact, the physical and spiritual are dangerously reactive.”

I’ve never like chemistry. I’d rather consider joy outside the realm of chemicals. But God was insistent and maybe a little worried.

“Unstable. Check it out.” He laid back down and feigned rapt interest in reading. When he treats me like that, I know I’m supposed to carry on.

Fine. I looked it up: Something that is dangerously reactive is in constant danger of polymerization, condensation or decomposition. It can also become self-reactive when stressed or under pressure. I was starting to relate. Stay with me, fellow chemistry-avoiders. I’ll simplify.

Polymerization involves small molecules that join together and become BIG molecules, causing heat and pressure. Yes. Greed and light. This can be modulated by catalysts and initiators—I know plenty of interpersonal catalysts and initiators–but it can get out of control. Boom. No joy. Inhibitors can be useful, if properly managed. But they can malfunction. They’re supposed to slow or prevent unwanted reactions, but they decline in power over time. They need to be kept chilled. We get lazy. Things happen.

Condensation involves molecules that join together to make a new substance (sounds kind of sexy). Byproducts might include water or some other simple substance, but the energy produced is sometimes more than predicted—more than can be handled. There can be fire, or serious ruptures. Jealousy. Hatred. And yes, joy—but hoarded or gone wrong.

And then there’s decomposition—well known to all of us aging into simpler forms. Even decomposition can release hazardous amounts of energy. “Some pure materials are so chemically unstable that they vigorously decompose at room temperatures by themselves.” Scan your social connections. Rings true, especially this past year.

Self-reactivity is even more painful. Explosions can occur from even small tremors—an insult, a hammer blow, elevated demands. Destructive reactivity. No joy.

“Ok,” I said, “So it’s risky. I get it.” Then I began applying the magenta to the corners of an overworked canvas. “Let’s just see what happens.” And from the far end of ultraviolet, where things are no longer visible to the naked eye, God smiled and said, “Yes, let’s.”

Found Art

Right now, I’m alone and hungry, and the relative silence I count on for creativity is hampered by the bathroom fan which is running because when I took our garbage down, I found a magnetic toothbrush haphazardly stuck to our dumpster and brought it home because it made me laugh, and I had some spray paint that would make it even funnier, so I took it out on the deck and sprayed it dark red, but the spray paint smelled toxic and it’s too cold to leave it outside to dry, so the toothbrush is drying in the bathroom: loud fan, thin door.

I’m going to leave myself hungry for a while because disruption and deprivation are rare for most of us and even small approximations are revealing. I have a chocolate bar at my elbow and granola a few feet away. I have Yo-Yo Ma ready to play on YouTube, and I’m fairly certain God would stop by for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. I have only to click, access, or ask. But I’m not going to. For this moment: No food. No silence. No God. No music.

Under my nose, my hands come together between paragraphs, and I realize that due to definitions, the No-God option is unavailable. Maybe this is a good thing. I breathe deeply and catch a whiff of that sharp smell escaping from the bathroom. I wonder if this is penance. I wonder if I need mercy.

I wonder if I could think more clearly if I had a bowl of granola. Mercies aren’t necessarily merciful, and God’s ever-presence is neither blessing nor curse. I wonder if I could spray paint God to increase visibility. I hear a chuckle. I wonder if I could make God hungry. I hear a groan.

“Fine,” I say to God. “You may as well materialize. Put your feet up.  Enjoy the view. Want some tea? Granola?”

God infuses the room diaphanous, translucent. Not hungry. Not visible. My hands elongate, my feet lose sensation, my vision expands, distorts, softens.

“No thanks,” God says, without making a sound.

“Then why are you here?” I ask, in an ungracious way.

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” God says, lifting a line from a recent detective show. “Besides, how do you know I’m here?”

I leave the unsteady room to check on the toothbrush. It’s dry. I wave it at God. “Seriously, what do you want? Why do you come by?” The toothbrush snaps itself to the refrigerator thanks to a magnet of considerable strength. But it’s kind of creepy sticking out there, deep red, reminiscent of bleeding gums. This won’t do. I need a gallery for found art and profound despair, and I need a cathedral where I can paint God into a corner. Both are unlikely.

I click, and Yo-Yo Ma begins to perform. I pour a bowl of granola and smile at God who has coalesced into a paintbrush dipped in turquoise. I’m working on a self-portrait. I’m not sure which colors to use, but for now, turquoise might be perfect.

Black Holes/White Flags

Once upon a time, God appeared in the living room and walked straight to the wood stove, extending his hands toward the fire. He seemed chilled and uptight. After a while, he gave me a half-eyed glance and in a choked voice said, “I sure hope I’m the kind of God you write about.”  Mystified, I mustered a reassuring smile.

Another time, God blew through the top of the cottonwoods, a holy howling terror, uprooting trees. Powerlines sparked and whipped like snakes. She pounded her chest, lifted skirts, and inverted the umbrellas intended to thwart the rain. “You will not stay upright,” she shrieked across the expanse. “You will not stay dry and there’s nowhere to hide.”

I hid.

God peeked down into my hiding place. “Sorry,” she said. “You can come out now.”

And then there was the time it drizzled miserably for days, and my sad friend told me she was dying, and the only God I could find was a four-legged critter that appeared to be a dog. God did some tricks, jumped on my friend’s lap, licked her face, and for a while, there was joy. Muted and resigned, but joy.

I slipped outside. Children were splashing in a threatening puddle. One of them kicked off bright yellow boots and squished black mud between her toes, barefoot and triumphant. I watched from the sidelines, silently cheering her on.

I’m remembering these times this morning as I sip a very stale beer—a gift from a stingy God who gives me leftovers–less than I think I deserve. But waste not, want not. And besides, what does deserve have to do with it? Is love earned or bestowed? Is it passed along or is each scrap absorbed into the black hole where nothing is ever enough and time itself has no meaning?

“Good morning,” God says, appearing beside me in stylish clothes. “Can I have a sip?”

“Sure,” I say. “It’s awful.”

God winks, tips the bottle back, swallows, and it’s gone. The beer is gone. The day is gone. Light is peeling off the walls, and I’m falling in.

“Help!” I yell to God as I dangle. The full weight of my body is too much.

God brings an umbrella and yellow boots, a dog, and a fresh beer. But I can’t accept any of it because I need both hands to hold onto the gravelly rim of my small reality.

“Let go,” God says.

“I can’t,” I yell back.

“Of course, you can,” God says, and kneels to loosens my fingers, one by one.