Instructions

Photo credit: Scott Wolff

God’s face will come off in your hands if you pull hard and twist.
Your own face is a fluid river. Not something you should readily admit.
The mysterious whispers from the shadows are ancestors sighing. Sigh with them.
After a hearty meal, a small bird balances on the tip of a branch. This is impossible.

If you aren’t stoned or near death, the day might seem ordinary. It’s not.
If you assume things will remain the way they are, you’re mistaken.
What you see, what you hear, what you believe–all unlikely. All contingent.
You may think you understand the ways of the world. You do not.

Your petty fears are confetti in a gale force wind. Celebrate their flight. You’ve won.
The rotten cottonwood with the eagle’s nest has blown down. For this, grieve.
There is nothing left to win or lose. Take God’s face out of your pocket. Wear it.
Use jagged stones to chew your food, and you will be briefly sustained.

Let your guard down, put your feet up. Be playful with the local delusions. Laugh.
You’ll notice the joke is on you, which is very good news. Rejoice.
Music blares into the wee hours of a morning you don’t own. Listen.
God will say unto you, “May I have this dance?” You wonder what to do. Dance.

In certain moments, you imagine that your angular finger is a twig. This is true.
When the sparrow lands to groom herself, you suspect it is the end. It is not.
Put your better ear to the ground or on the thin chest of newborn child. Say hello.
You’ve never fully lived here, but you call this place home. And it is.

Downhill

My downhill acceleration is alarming some days, but I reduce the gravitational pull by using switch backs and sensible shoes. God is one of my better switchbacks. She decreases the angle of decline and therefore the risks of freefall. Even though she refuses to make anybody immortal, she doesn’t mind being used as a switchback. Life on earth is unpredictable; sometimes brutal, sometimes disappointing, often too short, on occasion, too long. It is a brief opportunity to practice being kind.

I’m watching a couple of male deer lock horns in the snowy field, but I’m their only audience. Wisely, the females are focused on breaking through the crusty snow and grazing while they can. Sheltered in place, I like the visibility of dirt in the vacuum and the splintered wood with tough knots and gnarly twists waiting for the fire. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Day to day. Hand in hand.

On the other side of the pell-mell race that will never have a winner, the shimmering Now is a breakfast of excellent coffee, a blueberry scone, a vision beyond my nose, and the kind of silence that holds no threat. No demand. No promise. No direction. Only an abundance of breathable air.

God has moved into view carrying my best boots. She kneels and helps me slip them on. She’s shoveled a path through the snow that leads toward a certain horizon, but I linger over my scone. “Don’t make me move,” I beg God. “This might be the last blueberry I’ll ever taste.”

“Yes, it might,” God agrees. She pulls my snow pants down over the boots and tightens the drawstrings at the bottom. “And it might not.” She pats my thigh. “Either way will be fine.” She points to the hills and begins to die the thousand deaths required of her every day. She’s running a temperature, struggling to breathe, and there are gaping holes in the ozone.

On 9/11, the passengers on Flight 93 decided to bring the plane down rather than let it crash into the White House or the Capitol. Passenger Todd Beamer was recorded saying, “You guys ready? Let’s roll.” With whatever they had at hand, they stormed the cockpit. Right now, the cockpit is filled with plastics, poisons, hatred, and greed.

“Breakfast is over,” I say to my well-clad feet. “Let’s roll.”

Bad God

Here’s how it started: I spotted God strolling in the fading garden at sunrise and shouted, “Okay, God. Get in here right now. You’re in serious trouble, old man. Serious.” If God had a middle name, I would have used it. Like, “God Henry, I mean it.”

God heard me and waved. God heard me and pointed at the sky. God heard me and heard me and heard me because I didn’t stop yelling until I had dissolved in a coughing fit from over-exertion. It was only then God approached, slapped me on the back, and helped me catch my breathe.

“Pretty upset, huh?” God said.

“Oh, don’t try that Carl Rogers stuff on me,” I said. “You know damn well you’ve got to do something about your fake followers. Have you seen them, enshrining cruelty? Greed? Millions dancing at the thought of women forced to carry unwanted fetuses to term as if that’s what you want, rejoicing about your amazing creation being endlessly “developed”? Have you noticed the air quality? The hurricanes? The fires? The poor?”

“Slow down, partner,” God said. “Last day of good weather for a while. And it looks like you’ll have your first female Vice President, and she’s from Indian and Black parentage, and she’s smart. There’s that.” To my surprise, there were tears in God’s eyes. I mellowed a little, but the image of my neighbors wearing those detestable red hats with insulting slogans didn’t fade enough. I live in a beautiful place that voters have placed in the hands of the rich and morally corrupt. I live among people unwilling to pay taxes to care for the sick, the widowed, the poor, the broken. Unwilling to even pay their fair share for the common good.

God saw my despair. “Well, honey. You all have a long road ahead. I’ll give you that. Let’s try something, O.K.?”

I nodded. With God, a nod is a dangerous thing but not as dangerous as saying no.

“Pick a neighbor with a red hat. And get the image of the face clear in your mind’s eye.”

I complied, but there was a low guttural sound in my throat.

“Now, take the face gently into your hands and let your eyes speak love. Let your pain show. Let the truth generate a kind of holy light around you both.”

My hands clenched. My eyes burned. “I can’t do this,” I said to God. “I just want to snap the neck and be done with it.”

“I know,” God said. “But then who’d pay the taxes?” He laughed at his own bad joke, extended his elbow to my imagined neighbor, and they walked arm in arm back to the garden. God offered my neighbor some carrots. My carrots. My garden. My Bad God, out there loving my damaged, vicious neighbor, sharing my harvest.

I remained outraged, but I didn’t dare summons Bad God a second time. Who knows what else he’d give away? I just watched and sipped my beer.

Body Snatching

Today, I painted the fingernails on the plastic hand that I bought at an estate sale last summer. Apparently. the hand fell off of a mannequin into the pocket of an older individual who took it home. Who knows why? The daughter was selling everything, and I didn’t blame her. Her inheritance was mostly junk, though I did get a nice brass lamp and some decent pillowcases along with the hand. The graceful curl of these fingers reminds me of my mother’s hands. She kept her shapely nails immaculate, and on very special occasions, she painted them red. Mine were always chipped. This bothered her.

I have other projects, too. So many meaningful activities, it’s hard to choose among them. I’ve already answered emails, done Facetime with a friend, texted God twice, and eaten half of a pumpkin pie. Soon, I’ll take care of some other dreaded items on my list. But first, I need to gather myself in my dim navigational mirror and chart my way. God’s answer to my first text was garbled and long, filled with comically misspelled words. Essentially, it said “Hang on a bit longer, little buddy. I’m gathering fallen leaves, breathing over the surface of a thousand planets, and birthing stars. I wish I could bring you with me, but you must stay put. I’ll circle back.”

“Wait,” I texted back. “WAIT.”

I’m not sure what one does with a waiting God, but I didn’t need to figure that out because God refused. “No,” God texted. “You’re the one who has to wait.”

I know the fog will burn off, only to gather again, storms will rage, subside, and rage. The eternal is comprehensible only to a broken man lying on the side of the road–and only for a moment.

I am bereft of mother and father, bereft of a God that will submit to containment and do my bidding. But while I can, I will name the hatreds so hot, so wrong, they are burning holes in the fabric of hope. When I’m at my best, I, too, wait broken on the side of the road, and as darkness gathers, I, too, look up and see the cold light of stars—ancient light that has made its way over terrain I cannot imagine. As the sure and final darkness falls, I hope I will remember to pry my fists open and paint my broken nails florescent red. And then, when God circles back, I hope I’ll wave my fancy fingers like a shameless fool; defenseless and overjoyed.

Teeth

I have a friend we’ll call Albert who sends me Dark Web QAnon Planet X Antifa alerts on a regular basis, hoping to inspire me to get a gun, stop posting naïve declarations about compassion and forgiveness, and split more firewood. Albert likes me. He wants to help me and my family survive the coming apocalypse. I appreciate the intention, but I wish he could help me survive my arthritis and osteoporosis instead.

God stops by Albert’s place now and then. There’s always a pot of coffee on the back of the stove. Albert and his wife invite God in, and they have lively chats. Albert warns God about the evil afoot. God leans back, and from behind her Covid mask, she smiles a big, inclusive smile. I don’t think God means to be condescending, but she can be sarcastic in ways most people miss.

“What’s your take on survivalists?” God asked me. I was pretty sure she had Albert in mind.

“Depends,” I said. “I kind of like preppers and hoarders, but the conspiracy militia crowds freak me out.”

“Yeah,” God agreed. “They require a little more effort.”

“Effort?” I said with a snort.

“Un-huh. Effort. They’ve concocted some exhilarating realities to play with. It’s addictive. They roam around looking for something to make into an enemy, someone to blame and hate and shoot. It’s like they’re living in their own video game, and it’s a whole lot more fun than a being a grownup.”

I shrugged. Being a grownup is not all that easy. “God,” I said. “Humans have a lot of adolescent fears and fantasies that set us up for some very bad outcomes. And we have a lot of trouble outgrowing them. I, myself, have a few I’d like to outgrow.”

“I know,” God sighed. “Open your mouth.” I gave her a look but complied.

“Got some crowns. Fillings. And overall, your teeth look thinner. Not shiny white anymore.”

“So?” I asked, a little ashamed of the state of my teeth.

“So,” God said. “Teeth don’t lie. You can whiten them, cap them, pull them all out. You can just keep flossing and brushing ‘til the day you die. You have choices. They’re your teeth. But someone could come along and knock them out. Then you’d have a new set of choices.”

My tongue curled protectively around my chipped tooth. My mind curled protectively around the days I inhabit, the bones that carry me around, the ways and means I use to navigate these deep, choppy waters.

“God,” I said. “I don’t think I could kill someone to insure my own survival.”

“Of course you could,” God said. “But I hope you don’t. Survival is unattainable anyway. Your teeth won’t be with you forever, you know. No matter what you choose.”

To Tell The Truth

“Hello, God,” I said. “I’m glad to see you.”

“No, you’re not,” God said. “And besides, you can’t see me. You’re pretending again.”

“Ha,” I said. “I’m not pretending; I’m extraordinarily brave. I tell it like it is, and I see you as you are.”

“No,” God said, smiling. “To tell the truth, you see me as you are. Yes, in your timid sort of way, you’re brave. I’ll give you that. But at best, on a good day, you see a fraction.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Hide all you want. Bury yourself in round river rock. Roll to the sea and come back as rain. Write one of your names in the sky and erase it before anyone notices. I’m on to you, God.”

God threw back her head and laughed a belly laugh that turned into thunder that turned into earthquakes that turned into fire that burned the forest to ash, and yet…the hatching and birthing and sprouting continued in a clamorous flurry of all that might be and all that has always been. And nothing was essential. And nothing was missing except the deadly little part I was clinging to as if it could save me.

“Don’t look,” I said to God, as I tried to pry open the rusted metal box where I hide most of myself. “Nothing of interest here.” It opened a crack and I could see my inconsequential self looking back at me, pleading.

God stopped laughing and stared at her feet. She traced the grain in the wood floor with her toe. It was clear she had something difficult to say. I started crying. “It’s too late, isn’t it?” I sobbed. “I need one more life. Just one more. I’ll get it right next time, I promise.”

God shook her head solemnly and took my cold hand into her warm ones. We went to harvest the last of the carrots, me still sniffling, thinking my sorrow might generate a bit of sympathy. God, big and earthy. We dug for a while and then God paused, shovel in hand. “Lie down in the weeds and look up,” she said.

“I don’t want to,” I said, wiping my nose. “The ground is hard. The weeds have thorns, and we don’t have time for your nonsense. Winter’s coming.”

God held my gaze and sighed a long sigh that became a steady wind that became flying leaves that became fine dust. “That’s true,” she said, as she laid herself down between the rows. “Winter is coming.”

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

I smashed an old fly swatter to pieces yesterday. I was working in the barn and there were wasps on a window near me, nasty concave bodies moving in October drunkenness. I’ve been stung mercilessly many times. They seemed near their end, but I decided they needed to die. Then and there. Once I began swatting, a primal energy surged and I hit hard, with speed and precision. The threat of pain. The thrill of the chase. But the swatter was old. The webbed plastic gave way in brittle bits of faded red, leaving me with twisted wire and little else. I grabbed a scrap of cardboard to finish the job. Not a single wasp escaped, but the cardboard was disturbingly intimate. I could hear the crack of each exoskeleton as I administered death.

It is human to fear pain and death. It is human to inflict pain and death. I suspect these truths are intimately connected. When parents hit their children, they claim no delight. But power is reassuring. Forced compliance is rewarding. Intoxicating. Pain inflicted; big to little, many to one, defender to foe, strong to weak—we like to cheer for the underdog but only if the underdog wins. I admire hunters who kneel and thank their fallen prey for sustenance, but I’m troubled by those who catch and release or kill for the trophy, leaving the meat to rot.

The wind has beaten the hell out of our neighbor’s American flag, but it is still discernably there. God gave it a passing glance this morning. This made me want to ask him what he thought of allegiances to such things as flags. But I can’t ask today. God is in another space, attending the funeral of each wasp, chatting with the microbes and spiders in attendance. I declined the invitation, but now I regret it. Mercy and wisdom seem a distant hope as I watch the sleek black cat stalk rodents in the alfalfa.

People speak in similes and metaphors, analogies and opposites, creeping toward a horizon as pathetic as their pride, as fatal as their fears. Our reach exceeds our grasp, our visions cloud up, our longings are selfish and impossible. Somehow, this is as it should be. The final exam will be on compassion, not acquisition. Discernment, not dogma. Practice exams arrive daily, and the study materials are abundant and free.

There is No Why

Some people claim we are supposed to be stewards of this planet which is hurdling through space at speeds we don’t often consider. Others say the earth is ours to use up indiscriminately, regardless of how fast we’re racing through the Universe. Me? God? Today, we’re just along for the ride. I’m listening as deeply as I dare. God’s whispering in that still, small voice. It’s maddening, but that’s what we do sometimes. I’m game. God’s game. The day arrived without my asking. It will depart the same.

“You’re a little bit afraid, aren’t you?” God’s voice was gentle.

“Afraid?” I said. “Ah, yeah. Duh.  It’s not easy hanging out with you. It’s like a single-celled organism snuggling up with a herd of elephants. Like an atom in the ocean. Like I took my tongue and licked Neptune, and now I’m stuck.”

“Hmmm,” God said, distracted. “Do something redemptive. It’ll ground you a little.”

“I could try, but isn’t that mostly your job?” I paused. There’s a corner on our property that’s in bad shape. I’d need gloves, a sledgehammer, a truck, wire snippers, and ultimately fire. But no fire today. Way too dry out there. There’s a time for fire and a time for restraint.

“My job, your job, who cares?” God said. “There’s no end of things that need to be rescued or renewed. Of course, there’s an easier way. You could tell some lies, hoard some money, ruin some pristine land for a nice profit, stone someone, or shoot them in the back. Destruction and cruelty will drive the fear underground and give you a little break.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Like hitting my thumb with a hammer. Like hearing a fatal diagnosis. Like an oil slick taking down a dolphin. Like torturing a captive, raping a woman, or genocide…” I stopped with a gasp. God was writhing on the floor in pain.

“Oh, God,” I said, kneeling. “I’m so sorry. C’mon. Don’t cry.” I handed God a hanky. “It’ll be okay. I forgot how bad that stuff hurts. I won’t do those things. Or not many. Not often. Let’s head down to that corner, O.K.? We can pick up trash, and rake, and make a difference. C’mon God. I’ll let you drive the Hulk.” The Hulk is a Japanese delivery truck, one of my prized possessions. I don’t make that offer to just anyone.

God gave me a little smile, wiped his nose, and nodded. I handed him the keys. He handed me a pair of gloves. But then, he gave the keys back. “You’re not coming, are you?” I said sadly. It was more of a statement than a question.

“That’s how it will seem sometimes,” God said.

“Then why should I clean up that corner?” I said, fear rising again.

 God surrounded me with my own thin longings and murmured, “Relax, honey. There is no why.”

When for No Apparent Reason You Paint a Broken Rake

There are forces in the universe–neatly stacked wood, oranging pumpkins, stalks of hollyhocks gone to seed, fresh-cut alfalfa, twisted driftwood, cattle in the distance, air newly cleaned—these ferment my brain into dangerous effervescence. I approach the brink of God, dip my toes, and come undone, possessed by the moment that is not a moment that is full and tragic, achingly beautiful, and all that will ever be.

God is the God of mortar, lichen, and worn-away stone. God is the degradation of birth, the elevation of death, the definition color, an infinite splintering of light; wave and particle, energy and mass. God is the invasion of microbes, a dash of salt, the overweight cook in the kitchen where all is reformed into loaves that bake while the fish fry, and the fact of time is debated over expensive red wine.

“Fancy,” God says, settling. “I like what you did with that rake.”

“Thanks,” I answer, proud that he’d noticed. Yesterday afternoon, with unworthy fingers and no explanation, I had painted the tines of a broken rake. “And I like what you did with the morning,” I continue. “It’s taken me completely apart.” 

“I know,” God says. “I love you like this, all shredded and spikey.”

“Sure you do,” I say, the vertigo that is God making my eyes misfire so I cannot distinguish between inside or out, hand or foot. “Sure you do.” The crystals in my inner ear are mixing the signals. I snap the last carabiner open, and the chains fall to the ground.

“Wait,” God says as I begin to dissipate. “I wanted to give you a hug.”

“Can’t,” I say. “Covid.”

“Ha!” God laughs. “Good one.” The embrace is labyrinthian; my body folds in, flows out, reconfigures, settles, and I am ready. Again. For now. For nothing.

We Have No Sheep

Any minute now, God is going to show up with a new tattoo. He calls them Prison Ribbons. Medals of Honor. He’ll be revving a stolen Harley. He’ll be broke. If arrested, he will be killed.

Any day now, God is going to knock meekly on the outside door, waiting to be welcomed in. She will be crying. There are things too painful to bear alone.

Sometime in the afternoon, God is going to hear someone praying to win a soccer game, begging for help with an obstinate child, asking for healing, or relief, or just one more day, alive on the planet.

This evening, God is going to corral the sheep for their own safety. There’s been a mountain lion sighting. Even the dogs are nervous.

And me? Oh, I’ll be friendly enough. I’ll do some weeding in the garden. Bake some bread. Read. Think. Write. Plan. Argue. And I’ll wait. That’s the hardest. The waiting.

Unbearable, unthinkable companion, could you wait with me? Unload the guns? Unpack the anger? Could we dismantle our fears together? Maybe we could examine our jagged little pieces of hatred and throw them in the river. They won’t skip, but over the eons, they’ll smooth into gleaming stones.

I want to build a translucent wall of agate and quartz that everyone can touch—the living and the dead—the livid and the lucid and the lame—the wayward sons and daughters of a very wayward God.

But I find myself chewing my thumbnail, drinking my beer, rocking in the recliner like the old fool I’m becoming. I want to buy a donkey to protect the sheep. We have no sheep. We have terror, borrowed time, and limited vision but, as of this moment, we have no sheep.