When the Choir Preaches Back

Sometimes I count my blessings; sometimes I count my years, and though I don’t like admitting it, sometimes I count the number of people I think of as willfully, proudly ignorant, and my mood sinks. But as dawn arrives and light asserts itself, my despair dissipates into benign speculation, and I am among the billions awaiting transitions no one can explain. I watch God in the fire and in the lines of frost across the windows evaporating directly into air. I watch God peacefully protesting greed, misogyny, and cruelty. I imagine my grandchildren and their grandchildren carrying genes across the great divides of life and death, and I am both stricken and intrigued. What could I possibly do to lessen the burdens and reduce the suffering to come?

God emerges gentle. Always gentle. Always sacrificial. Always self-assured. Kindling for the fire. Moisture for the frost. God surrounds me, stone tools, dead branches, herds of deer, flocks of sparrows, and a holy stillness in which I can rest. I don’t want to rest. I am aware of how easily I will break and burn and disappear. I want to speed down the runway and lift into a sky that will leave me unbroken and unchanged.

“If you reduce the suffering, you reduce the joy,” God speaks in everywhere voices. “If you take away the burdens, the bones soften. The understandings recede and the cost rises.”

“Hello, Old Friend,” I say. “Let’s not fight today. I won’t disagree or complain or act as if I know anything at all. Instead, could we fly? Could we walk through fire, find the garden, and open the gates?”

God laughs and lifts a million arms in praise. A multitude of God begins to sway to an inescapable beat; a galactic choir robed in sunrise crimson bursts into a seditious version of the Hallelujah Chorus; I’m not Mormon or Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, Jainist or Hindu, or anything defined beyond my tenuous friendship with God, but as I sidle up, my Friend throws a heavy velvet robe across my shoulders, and I join the altos. We sing the truths of repeated defeat. The roiling ocean of human sorrow buoys us up, the crashing waves, a steady percussion section. Hundreds of soaring sopranos lift off and take the high notes with them, but like spring, they promise to return.

On Being Mean and Hateful

“God, why is being mean so damn gratifying and easy?” I asked from the depths of a very bad mood.

“Because you’re angry,” God answered. “Anger is like a heat-sensing missile. It scans for a target. Once zeroed in, it feels good to release that toxin and blow things up.”

I chewed my thumbnail and said nothing. Questions came to mind, but I didn’t want a sermon. God can be so redundant. Blah blah blah, forgiveness. Blah blah blah, compassion. Blah blah blah, self-sacrifice. It gets old. Aren’t we built for survival? Aren’t we meant for greater things than washing windows, vacuuming, hauling other people’s garbage, and groveling? Why are there winners? Losers? Why is war seductive? Entertaining?

“Don’t answer!” I yelled as God opened his mouth. He closed it and softened into a smiling grandmother with shining black skin, plaited silver hair, and big white teeth. I watched her Mona Lisa smile warily, and my eyes narrowed to slits. “Get away from me,” I said.

She dipped her head and softened into her younger self, supple and innocent. I glared and declared, “I don’t know you.” She bowed her head and softened into a little boy with a baseball mitt and a dream. I shook my head menacingly and frowned at his wistful face. His eyes held mine as he softened into a naked baby kicking in the sunlight that poured through my unwashed windows.

This helplessness sickened me. Complete and utter vulnerability, displayed without a shred of pride or self-consciousness; arms waving, legs kicking, holy drool slipping down the sides of those fat cheeks, landing where new planets will someday emerge, perfectly round.

I backed away. “Don’t make me see, God. Don’t make me old or poor or weak,” I begged, staring down at the infant. “I want to play nice in Eden with very pretty people. I want to be fully understood and adored just as I am. If you’re God, you love me, right? So you can do this. I need a shortcut. A yellow brick road. A red carpet.”

The baby hardened and cracked into fragments of granite, jasper, onyx, and light. The earth beneath my feet was no longer firm. Yoga instructors always say to notice the earth supporting me, but it had become shifting sand. I covered my nose and mouth and dropped to my knees. “Ah, fuck,” I muttered. “I don’t want to deal with myself.”

“You surprise me,” God said from the pile of broken stone. “I thought you were tougher than that.”

“Like I have a choice,” I said, as I turned my face toward the voice.

“Exactly,” God said. “Like you have a choice.”

The Meek

“Here’s the question,” I said to God. “Why would the meek even want to inherit the earth? After the unmeek are finished pillaging, what’ll be left anyway?”

Three distinct snow devils twirled by, and then a vicious wind blew the remnants of the last storm across the garden, blurring my view. The weather patterns have begun to express earth’s outrage at its tormentors. The meek stand at the far end of the long arc of justice and there’s no pot of gold awaiting. Only diminishment and misery.

“Interesting question,” God said. “Could I get a couple of scrambled eggs? The brown, free-range ones, if you please.”

“Why?” I asked. “What’s the point? You’re not hungry.”

God shrugged and made his own eggs.

And here’s another interesting question,” I said with some irritation. “Why is nature so exquisite? Elephants. Apple trees. Caterpillars. Orchids. Translucent baby mice, huddled in their circle of pink, bones so tiny they could be eyelashes. Wild skies. Bengal tigers. Wheat fields before harvest. Fire. Ice.” I paused, caught up in the complexity and splendor of it all. Then added, “and why are humans so destructive?”

God ate his eggs, nodding and smacking his lips. “These eggs were fertilized,” he said. “Circle of life and all that. Tasty. But this toast is questionable. I think your flour has gone bad, and I think I’d like some ice cream.”

I sighed. The wind had died down. The air was clean, my vision unimpeded, my flour rancid, my questions mostly unanswered, and for some inexplicable reason, my soul was at peace. A cold snap was rolling in, but we had enough wood. I vowed to have more faith next time and buy less flour. But I bake a lot of bread.

“Survival is a complicated, temporary equation, isn’t it?” I asked God as he zipped his down coat, wrapped his neck with a wool scarf, and pulled his rabbit fur hat down tight. I didn’t expect him to answer, but he did.

“Yes and no,” he said. “On one side are the essentials: Compassion. Humility. Sacrifice. On the other, well, you figure that out.” He took a long lick of what appeared to be licorice ice cream and added, “It may involve delight.” Then he slipped out the door to the west where joyous and majestic mountains rose to greet him. There were snowshoes strapped to his back.

The Harder Truths

“God,” I lamented. “It’s seriously cold and I’m sad.”  My old friend had died in the night, brave and private in his decline. I rubbed my hands together, trying to warm them. God watched me, face impassive. I continued. “You know I hate being cold.” I was feeling sorry for myself. Too many losses. Too much grief. Deep freeze cold makes me insecure, achy, and painfully aware of mortality.

God didn’t seem inclined to do anything useful, so I got a blanket. She watched as I draped it over my chest and wrapped my feet. Then she said, “Most of you secretly want your mommies when you’re cold, hungry, frightened, or sad, don’t you?”

This seemed less than kind. I glared. Said nothing. God went on. “But not your real mommy. You want an imaginary celestial being who understands how hard things are. Someone to fawn over you, feed you, assure you of your incredible worth, make false promises, and tuck you in, safe and sound, every night.”

I wasn’t enjoying these revelations, and the blanket wasn’t helping much. I shivered and looked away. God continued. “Oh, I know you sometimes arrange to be tucked in by surrogates, but even if they give you warm milk, dim the lights, or stay and snuggle, they aren’t what you long for. They can’t save you from yourself.”

Why on earth was God saying such things? I’m not all that demanding. I don’t think I long to be taken care of—at least not all the time. Is a blanket too much to ask? Overall, I’m relatively independent, nearly a prepper, minus the guns. I have two outhouses, a pantry, solar panels, wood stove, tons of rice, and an attitude.

God sat big in the middle of my brain. I sat uneasy in the presence of this God, apparently determined to say things I didn’t want to hear.

“Being grown-up means you put yourself to bed at night.” God said, as if ending a sermon or an inspirational talk.

I was not inspired. “No,” I wailed. “You’re wrong. You’re there. I know you are. And there are others. The ancestors. The nymphs and gnomes, the weak and strong. My beloved. My children and the children in such despair. Such need. They all go to bed with me. And we sleep. And we wake up. And we hope. And we believe as best we can.” I made these shaky declarations between ragged breaths, my hands fisted, ready to slug it out.

God took the fists and blew warm breath on them as they unclenched. I looked up and saw that God was crying, too. We flung our arms around each other and let the tears drip into the vast and rising darkness where the souls of the dearly departed wait to tuck us in with a strange and certain warmth.