The City of God

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Last night God populated the street with threatening poses that grew increasingly dense: closed faces briefly lit by yellow streetlights; eyeballs flashing warnings in the gloom; mouths reluctantly exhaling into the thin haze of hopelessness. “Give nothing away,” I said. “Give nothing away.” But things were being taken. In Spokane, God nearly froze to the sidewalk last week. They’ve opened more shelters. In Syria, though, the little ones ice up and are gone.

In the restaurant, safe and warm, I ordered more than I could eat, but I tried to eat it all. The garlic was potent. It protected me as I walked back through that God-infested version of hell, that sinking ship, that over-burdened set of human systems cracking under the weight of evolution derailed. I wanted to touch each face. Instead, I touched my own. I had a dollar in my pocket. Earrings in my ears. Back in the artificial safety of my pale room, I pillowed my head and slept through the blaring sirens within and without.

It’s no easier this morning. God is in the hallway with a cart of towels, soaps, and other deadly products, waiting to clean up after me. I could make God’s day by leaving a generous tip. The life in me says what the hell, leave a twenty. The death in me says give nothing away. Give nothing away—after all, you’ve made your own bed. I see myself dropping diamonds for the groveling masses (I hate diamonds. I hate groveling masses). I see myself–a beheaded simpleton with a gnarly finger in a greedy dike. Mostly, though, I see that I want to matter.

“What to do, Black God?” I ask. “What to do, Brown God? Helpless God? Transgender, transported, translated God? How do I touch you and not get burned?”

The Laughing Buddha, belly large and round like earth, is on fire. The cherubim and seraphim descend with burning coals they have stolen from Allah. The Small One puts her icy hand in mine and says, “Don’t be afraid. I’ll cool your lips when it’s over.” I bow my head, then lift my eyes. I tell myself I’m ready. Nothing happens. Everything happens. I see now that the frozen child has come to save me. She has given everything away.

Valentines

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God has been making fun of me lately, trying to get me to wrestle, insisting I lighten up. I resist because of this sense of impending injury. God doesn’t realize her own strength, and I tend to fight back, even if it’s all in fun. But is it ever all in fun? C’mon, God. Is it?

God pulls her tickle-fingers back and takes a deep breath, accidentally inhaling millions of locusts, eleven planets, and so much disgusting space debris that she sneezes. I grab a well-installed towel rack and hang on.

“Bless you,” I say automatically. What a stupid custom. No demons are going up anyone’s noses, especially God’s. But I say it and mean it for whatever that’s worth in this strange condition of being alive. And I am alive. Alive in sage green, burnt orange, and lavender paint spread over the chalky primer. Alive in the demolition and reconstruction of shelter. Alive like the probiotic bugs I’m sipping to recolonize my ravaged digestive track.

“Bless you again,” I say, as God’s second sneeze rattles the rafters. I add, “I’ve never really thought about you sneezing.” God rubs her nose and wipes her eyes. “Yeah, I’m allergic to some things you’d never guess,” she says. “And besides, you can’t think of everything. Want me to do a little thinking for you?” She grins.

“Oh no.” I say this in a very firm voice. “No. Absolutely not.” I figuratively wrap my arms around my brain and hold my hand up like a guard at a school crossing. “No.”

One thing I’m clear on is this: God’s thoughts are not my thoughts. God’s ways are not my ways. I prefer my own thoughts. Otherwise, what’s the point? God has grown Vulcan ears, and her eyebrows are thick and angular. “Mindmeld, anyone?” she says, clearly having way too much fun. “Oh my God!” I say, starting to laugh despite myself. “Could you just leave it alone?”

“It, or you?” God asks, and adds, “I can drop a subject as quick as anyone, so yes, I can leave it. But you? Sweetheart, you might think you’d like a little distance, but you can’t understand how bad that would be. So, you? Nope, I won’t be leaving you alone. Ever. Sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, but I’m God. I have certain prerogatives.”

My face is stony, but the glare is facetious. I just don’t feel like admitting my relief. Right now, a nap sounds good. “Excellent idea,” God agrees.

“Yes,” I say. “I’m glad I thought of it.” Then with exaggerated dignity, I crawl into her chest cavity, very near her broken heart, and fall asleep.

 

Warm Heart

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It is evening. Snowy. The vicious ways of humanity have crawled up on the couch beside me, surrounded me, touched me, and laughed. I see them loading their guns. I offer to eat the bullets. They laugh.

It is the end of a day, an era, minutes strung together with a thin cord falling through the ice. Going under and away. God is the Titanic and the iceberg. I want to refuse the cold comfort, but I can’t.

This is not of my own doing. It is a gift of God.

I warm my hands over my own chest, tuck them under my own arms. I open my mouth to admit my fear but what comes out is anger. This, I quickly see, is what has warmed my heart. What to do with this fire? It is hypnotic to the eye. Searing to the touch.

Recently, I read a book about World War II and said to myself, “Those horrors were only 80 years ago.” I am lured by the distorted consolation of disbelief. My soul entertains the idea of a stealthy migration to meaninglessness; the reabsorption of my face into the masses.

But long ago, in a desperately poor institution, I saw a naked boy caged in a window, his pink-tipped penis, long and limp, his muddy eyes slow-moving and opaque, arms draped through the ornate bars, fingers exploring, imploring anyone to hold his hand. Anyone.

These decades later, I wonder where he is. Did the cage fly open? Did his penis grow erect? Did anyone ever hold his hand, and if they did, did they survive, or did he pull them down into the half-life of that underworld?

He would be a man now. He would not remember my face if he happens to be alive, but I think he’s not. Such poverty sucks the marrow from the bones of the children. I have grieved this child my entire life, and I doubt that even death will change that. He is a part of what I know.

This is not of my own doing. It is a gift of God.

Sabbath

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“I’ve been rethinking the whole Sabbath thing,” God says, as we share a green smoothie and watch a spectacular sunrise. “I don’t think people get it anymore, and I’m afraid it’s been pigeonholed as something exclusively Jewish or contorted by the evangelicals. They’re masters of contortion.”

“Ah, um, well,” I say, caught a bit off-guard. “What is it we’re supposed to get?”

“You tell me,” God says in her slyest voice.

My defenses flare. Flecks of spinach float in the blueberry kefir. There was a time when I had a grasp on Sabbath—the crossing over from chaos to rest. From flailing to faith. It wasn’t Jewish. It wasn’t Christian or Muslim. It was kairos—the fullness of the moment—an eternity in which nothing and everything mattered, including me. It was a fleeting glimpse of nirvana, a deep plunge into enlightened trustingness. It was a backfloat on the salty sea of oneness—effortless disconnection from the workaday days and dream-addled nights. But the ways of the world drained the sea. I often found myself floating on mud, so I crawled away from Sabbath, and now I shop, grateful the stores are open.

I look deeper—I can’t help myself. I remember the way in—through a door where guards strip-searched souls for fear, shame, and crippling uncertainties. Then, the chilling nakedness was quickly covered by 5-star hotel bathrobes of pure compassion, tenderly wrapped around the body; furry slippers placed on weary feet. Someone pays the bill in advance, but you have to share the room with yourself. I’m not an ideal roommate.

Resting in God is a place to live. Entering the Sabbath is what children do when they build a treehouse high in the clouds. It is soft and safe up there. There’s hope and magic. Crackers and apples and cheese. Communion. I had a treehouse like that. I built it mostly by myself, but my dad had to shore things up here and there. The memories make me dreadfully homesick.

“Okay, you’ve made your point,” I say, dragging my restless self into the present. “Let’s drop it, okay?”

God tips her head back, shaking the last slow drops down the inside of the gleaming glass. They spill into her open, happy mouth. “Good smoothie,” she says. “That really hit the spot.”

 

When the Fat Lady Sings

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For the 17th time, we’re remodeling our interior space(s) with upcycled materials that require varying levels of tolerance and creativity. In this, as in all things in my life, God worms his way in and turns whatever I’m doing into a parable. It’s all about him. Some might find this reassuring. I don’t. Here’s what I know: In contrast to me, the Contractor-in-Chief always obtains the correct permits to begin remodeling. Then he rolls up his sleeves and works like the devil to upcycle your innards. Seventeen times is nothing to him. It’s a rolling remodel–a lifetime composting project. And here’s something ugly: In your innermost being, there’s asbestos, black mold, dry rot, and highly combustible chemical substances that must be properly stored but often are not.

Fire happens frequently. Like many in my species, I start little blazes that if left unchecked would burn the entire project to the ground. God’s a skilled firefighter, but sometimes he decides to call in the whole damn volunteer fire department. It’s embarrassing. After the flames subside, platitudes and excuses abound. The crowd is pleased, hell freezes over, and I skate away on ice I know to be very, very thin. The cows start for home, and the Fat Lady warms up in the wings, octaves surging like a dangerous river. There’s no doubt she will sing. She’s the most voluptuous incarnation God ever assumes. Such lungs. That dark cleavage rising, those magnificent breasts; objects of desire and dread. This is where we’ll all find ourselves eventually; in the arms of the Fat Lady smothered in love; upcycled beyond recognition. Transformed.

“And in the meantime?” I wonder to myself. God smiles, soot clinging to his mustache, circling his nostrils. He tosses me a hard hat, a yellow suit, and a big, cherry red fire extinguisher. “Keep trying,” he says. “You’ll improve over time.”

“Why?” I moan. Doubt lines my face. “Even if I get good–really, really good–it won’t be enough.” God remains silent, eyes generating their own searing light. “And I might get burned trying,” I add, feeling sorry for myself. Who really wants the eyes of God focused on them?

“Of course you will,” God says, his voice kind but firm. “But what’s a little scorch here and there?” He waves a crusty hand out the window of his firetruck, slips into the turn lane, and disappears.

 

 

Lists

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There are so many things on my list today: Paint the coffee table orange; bake the leftovers with lots of cheese and spices to disguise the blandness; locate the next hot yoga class and begin making excuses for not going; do some laundry at somebody’s house; get out of my pajamas; buy a carrot peeler and cabinet knobs; make a cameo appearance in the happiness class; check my email; watch it snow.

But the snow stopped. The knobs are the wrong color, and bland isn’t always bad. The time on my hands is faintly bioluminescent, but there isn’t enough light to do anything but pray, palms together, a gesture of peace. Gratitude. Acquiescence. This, while the world has sunk so deep into the chaos of self that no one can tell an enemy from a friend. The bottom lines have given way. We’ve fallen through. Again.

Generally, solitary confinement is a form of punishment often classified as torture, but solitary confinement of the soul is a necessary discipline for recalibration. For close encounters. For unwinding the knot. Time to let the long tongue and wagging tail of the ever-eager God cleanse the wounds and loosen the grime of everyday life.

But God is not a dog today. Her calendar is filled with boring meetings, delicate negotiations, and a stint of volunteer work at the homeless shelter. She’s doing a reading tonight that will likely be well-attended—I’m glad for her, but I’m jealous. I don’t like waiting on such a busy God.

To my great delight, there’s a glimmer of God in the corner. She shakes her head as I try to snuggle in. “Not now,” she says. “You need to wait.”

“No!!” I wail, “I hate waiting. It makes me very, very anxious.”

“Sorry,” she says. “But you can do it. I’m counting on you.”

“Counting on me to wait?” I ask, stalling, pretending not to know.

“You can’t trick me,” God says, fading.

“Yes I can, yes I can, yes I can,” I yell to the Great Disappearance.

I tell myself I’m lucky she stops by as often as she does, but that’s not how I feel. The time on my hands has turned blood red, and my fingerprints are everywhere. “Get centered,” I tell myself. “You’re making a mess.” Waiting is a transformative torture. The long way home. I feel like a fool when I wait. I picture God, busy dishing up soup, teasing the tattered men with her sexy winks, her arms slung around the shoulders of women, repeatedly stoned. That’s how it is. She’ll come by later, and I’ll rub her feet.

Faith

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The only reason I have any faith at all is that the alternatives are worse. That, and the incessant presence of this thing I call God bugging me, day and night, my face in her hands. My thoughts invaded, emotions mirrored, breath punched repeatedly out of my gut, eyes stinging, heart heavy. Is this any way to live?

“Hey,” God protests, perched like a bird on a very small branch. “I can hear you, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” I say. “I know.” I look the beast in the eye. “But it doesn’t matter, does it? There’s nothing I could think or say that would make you disappear anyway, right? Vamoose, God. Come here, God. Take a bullet for me, God. Cure me, God. Kill the bad guys, God. Elevate the good guys, make my team win, get me some of that human elixir, revenge. Okay, God? Okay?”

Human prayers—my prayers—flawed. Arrogant. The sheen of innocence rubbed raw by the abrasive sandpaper of reality. For instance, there are people in my life, people in the news, people on the street—all waiting around in my mind in case I muster the strength to love them. But I don’t want to love them. In fact, I wish some of them dead and gone.

“Hey,” God says quietly. “I can still hear you, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” I say. “But that’s your problem.” I offer God my ear buds. “Take a break if you’d like.”

I howl like a wolf, snarl like a jaguar, scream like prey being eaten. I consider the various abdications or aggressions at my disposal. God is an excuse, a drug, a cult leader, a fairy tale, a haven for the vicious and the weak. In the name of God, we’ve tortured, killed, subjugated, taken our fill of the first fruits, grown fat, hateful, and smug.

“Hey,” God whispers from the smallest place. “The ear buds are nice, but I can still hear you. It’s from the inside.”

“Oh, I know,” I whisper back, my voice hoarse, my throat on fire. “I know.”

The day begins despite my protests and misgivings. Morning is rolling across the hills, quivering with the potential of the moment lived, mine for the taking. If I leave it untouched, can it be returned? If I put my soul in my backpack and run for my life, can I escape?

“Hey,” God says without making a sound. “Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” I admit. “But with really good earbuds, I keep hoping…”

“Oh, I know,” God says. “I know.”