Stung

About an hour ago, I opened a shed door oblivious to the wasp nest this disturbed. The response was swift and precise. My right nostril exploded in pain, and I went a little crazy, swatting my own nose, jumping around, yelling, and running. My eyes watered, my face swelled, and a sneezing fit hit me.

I am now in recovery, subdued and holding still to keep the baking soda and Benadryl cream in place. God saw the whole thing. He raced to the house with me and is sitting nearby, but I’m not interested in chatting with anyone remotely responsible for wasps.

“Not fair,” God says.

“Whatever,” I say. “Who in their right mind would let a creature like that evolve?”

“Why do you keep assuming I have a right mind?”

“Clearly, you don’t. How about I stop thinking you’re responsible for anything?”

“That would be an improvement.”

We sit in silence. Me, nursing the sense of betrayal I feel when things go wrong, or I get hurt. God, sitting by. Just sitting by.

In a crisis, does it matter if there’s a God sitting by? Especially one who absolves itself of pestilence, pettiness, and pain? I don’t know.

God continues to sit calmly while I-don’t-knowness fills the room.

“In no way do I absolve myself,” God says. “But don’t worry. You cannot believe me into existence, and unbelief doesn’t get rid of me.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask, still feeling sorry for myself.

“You have a tendency to parse and attribute agency and blame. The greater Whole doesn’t come apart. There’s a reason for my name.”

“Which one?” I ask, but I know the answer. God’s first name is I AM. Simple. Overly inclusive, present tense, unequivocal, and far beyond interference or comprehension. It’s the big I AM, sitting by.

“Not sitting by,” God says. “Sitting with. Sometimes, sitting within.”

“The wasp is dead,” I say. “And I’m going to kill the rest of them.”

“I totally understand,” God says. “And for what it’s worth, I believe in you.”

“Well, that might be a badly misplaced belief.”

“I know. But it’s what I do.”

I put on layers of impenetrable clothing, grab the wasp spray, and prepare to do battle. I wish manna would drop from heaven and feed the hungry. I wish a great wind would arise to cleanse and save the earth. I wish self-absorbed liars would be seen for the vicious creatures they are. I wish the wasps would disappear like locusts at the end of a plague, but I know they won’t. Innocent others will be going through that door. Like Bonhoeffer plotting to kill Hitler, I am deeply conflicted, but it’s clear: This one’s up to me.

Spending and Spent

Saved time is not insured by the FDIC because there is no such thing. Saved time is just time used differently. Your supply dwindles no matter how you choose to spend it.

“True. How are you going to use yours today?” God popped in, casual as a neighbor.

“I’m going to stare out the window and resent incursions into my space or thoughts.” I crossed my arms, wishing God would give me a little more warning sometimes. God laughed, but then did a double-take.

“Wait. Are you talking about me?”

“Of course not!” I protested vigorously. “Feeling a little insecure? You’re the reason I wait. You’re not an incursion; you’re magic. Granted, it’s dark, rude magic sometimes. But mostly welcome.” My voice may have revealed a touch of ambivalence.

“Mostly?” God teased, unfazed and clearly not insecure.

“Yeah. It depends on mirrors, memories, seasons. It depends on how ready I am to be one with the universe, to be confident that life has meaning, to accept my fate gracefully. Stuff like that.”

“Makes sense,” God said. “I don’t mind being quiet once in a while.”

“That’s not what I mean. I don’t want YOU to be quiet. Be loud. Beat the drums. Fling a double rainbow around your neck. Grow vast fields of grain. Hatch eggs. Lift off with the latest telescope or dive down into your oceans and find what’s dying. Heal things.”

“My, my,” God said, facetiously. “Those are some tall orders.”

“I know,” I admitted. “But it’s best if we all keep busy. Especially you.”

“Wait,” God laughed again. “A minute ago, you were planning to stare out the window all day.”

“Yeah. Well, Emerson said ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’. And remember? I said I was waiting for you.”

But was I? Anyone who’s tried waiting around for The Real to reveal itself, for the Self to gather strength, for the soul to lead, for the heart to extend compassion knows it is a fraught undertaking. Some of us pretend uncertainty so we don’t have to do the good work right in front of us. Others are mean and selfish in the name of a contrived and certain god.

Real God slapped her legs and stood. “I’ll take you at your word,” she said. “The wait’s over. Let’s go.”

I lowered the leg rest on my recliner, took God’s bony black hand, and said, “Fine. What wonders will we work today? What miracles will we perform?”

God punched my shoulder, “Let’s start with being nice,” she said. “Then we’ll see what else might be possible.”

Resisting Domestication

Caged animals trouble me even if there are acres of natural habitat within their enclosures. The prowling and howling unsettle my claustrophobic soul. And the barriers give visitors a false sense of security. Some time ago, instead of eating the raw meat offered, a grizzly bear ate its handler. We’ve not yet domesticated grizzlies, but if photos of human hubris in Yellowstone Park are any indication, people think befriending wild animals is easy. Just walk right up and pet the bison. In gratitude, it will lower its massive head and lick your hand.

Over the eons, animals willing to be domesticated have provided humans with companionship, labor, and food. Various theologies claim to have domesticated God for similar reasons, but in truth, there is no such thing as a tame or definable God.

“You’ve got that right,” God bellows, sitting large in the hayfield, posing as a woolly mammoth while celestial beings take selfies with her.

I wave but keep my distance. “You know you’re extinct, right?” I’m joking but I’m also afraid of the answer.

God’s tusks circle back to her ancient head. She roars, and the celestial beings roll away like geodes. Their fall from grace cracks them open revealing the phantastic crystal formations of their inner lives. I long to touch the cold brilliance of the fractured geodes, feed God fresh-cut hay, build a nice barn, and corral them all.

“Are you imagining what kind of fencing you’d need?” God asks.

“Yes,” I admit. “But I don’t really want you contained.”

God looked at me long and hard. I looked at myself long and hard. “Ok. I guess I do want you a little bit contained. Otherwise, you’re terrifying.”

As if to prove my point, Woolly Mammoth bellows again. “You terrify yourselves. I’m the source of comfort.”

I bravely push back. “Well. Maybe. But you’re also the reason we need comfort. The conditions we’re born into…consciousness, love, loss, sacrifice, floods, fires, starvation, war…”

“What makes you think your species isn’t going the way of the woolly mammoth?” God interrupts.

“Um, well. We’re amazingly adaptable. And no one’s hunting us.”  I stop abruptly as I realize we actually hunt each other. And our ability to adapt has limits. God’s silence is not reassuring.

I try a slight change of subject. “Did you know scientists are working on cloning woollies back into existence?”

“You don’t say!” Woolly Mammoth exclaims facetiously as she turns and becomes first light. I see that the truth, such as it is, has shaped itself into shelter. It looks dicey, but I think well, if God lives anywhere, it’s here, so I crawl in. At least it’s not a cage.

Existential Angst

The explanation could be as simple as caffeine. Or scoldings by Ms. Manners. Or a niggling Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder whispering reminders of my failings and violations of the common good. I don’t know, but I can’t seem to get rid of the angst and sense of urgency that rob me of the peaceful existence I deserve. Something or someone is out to get me. I share the paranoia of my era. The exaggerated, anxiety-producing avoidance of death.

My father died nine days short of my 20th birthday. He exited life as I was exiting the teens. He was 44. Somehow, my grief-demolished mother hosted a random set of grandparents for a bleak commemoration of the day I was born. She made roast beef, potatoes, and a cake. It was a dark, dark birthday. I don’t know how we managed to swallow.

“But you did,” God says, joining me gently as I sit with memories flooding by on either side. “Your mother was as brave as anyone I’ve known, but I had to attend that party disguised and uninvited. She was done with me, and I don’t blame her.”

“I didn’t even know you were there!” I exclaim. “I brought a different god. He spewed platitudes and mumbled lies about God’s will and imminent resurrections and such. It was awful. Why didn’t you shut him up?”

“All in good time,” God says, her eyes filling with tears. “I’m not apologizing or defending myself, but there are days I just cry my eyes out.”

I put my arms around God while she sobs as if the loss were yesterday. And for God, it was. And is. And ever shall be. I cannot think of what to do. We are all baffled kings composing hallelujahs. Overthrown by instinct and libido, lust and love. Endless birthing. Endless dying.

“I never intend to fool or frighten anyone,” she says, taking deep ragged breaths to calm herself.

“I know, Sweetheart,” I say. I run my fingers through her unruly hair. “But we judge and fool and frighten ourselves. We can’t help it. The contradictions and losses are too much.” God slowly slips out of my embrace. She moves to the outer edges of the known, opens her thousand wings, and disappears. Behind her the path is littered with breadcrumbs, a trail of her broken self. As I follow, all things extraneous fall away, and I am slightly less afraid.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

The very greenly greens out my window should be making me happy. The realization that I cannot save the world should be a relief. The ways I am rich should bring me joy: my art supplies and new welder; a soulmate, nice neighbors, kindred spirits; drawers full of chocolate; the asparagus, birds, and well-gravelled roads. But no. I’m not happy. Not relieved. Not filled with joy. I’m surprised God even wants to share my peanut butter milk dark stout. But here she is, swirling the frothy brown around like a connoisseur.

“Sweet and musty,” she says, with an exaggerated French accent. “With une légère saveur de dirt.”

“Stop it,” I say. “You’re not funny. I’m in a very bad mood.”

“Really?” God asks. “Who would’ve guessed?”

I ignore the sarcasm. “The thing is, God, I’m not sure what I want anymore. I thought it was a blue couch and a book club. Silk pajamas. Clarity about what to give away and how to die. But the days roll on … tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace…”

“And here you are, strutting and fretting your hour on stage,” God interrupts, picking up on that profound riff Shakespeare wrote for his character, Macbeth, four centuries ago.

“Not strutting,” I protest. “But yeah, maybe fretting.”

God grins. “My favorite definition of fretting is to gnaw with teeth in the manner of a rodent.”

I don’t want to smile, but who can resist that image? God and I clink our glasses together and she says, “When you die, you’re gone. But what you did with your life stays. It’s fine if you leave some teeth marks here and there. I leave some myself occasionally.”

“I know,” I say. “I’ve got the bite marks to prove it.”

“Oh, those aren’t mine,” God says. “Look closer.”

Dental patterns are unique. I know very little about God’s dental features, but I’m familiar with my own. I examine my scars. It appears I’ve been gnawing on myself for years. I run to check nearby loved ones, and yes, I’ve gnawed on them, too. God reveals her tender underarm. Unbelievable. I’ve even gnawed on God.

“Sorry,” I mumble. “That’s not the legacy I was hoping for.” I grab some healing balm and rub it on God’s flesh. The bite marks fade. “I’m so sorry,” I repeat. I offer God my first born, my pajamas, my credit cards, and the book club. God laughs, helps me rub some balm into my own bite marks, and shakes her head.

“None of your stuff fits me,” she says. “But you’re on the right track. Carry on.”

If I Love My Enemies, Who Will Hate Them for Me?

Loving my enemies, even if the list is limited to humans, is a tall order. If other lifeforms are included, say vicious dogs or mutating viruses, all bets are off.

“Who’s betting?” God asks. This is a trick question. Instead of answering, I distract myself by reviewing things or people I detest. First, the obvious: Covid. Putin. But the list rapidly expands until I am simmering in the cauldron of generalized hate. God waits.

The dog I’m in charge of today isn’t vicious, but she’s often overtaken with spasmodic joy when she sees me. Neither of us can contain it. She squeaks, grovels, dashes here and there, and even though she knows better, she leaps up and knocks me down. I yell “No.” She meekly allows me to put her in timeout but then howls in protest. God is still waiting.

One definition of enemy is someone or something injurious or destructive. The dog knocked me over in joy, but the bruises are the same. How does intention factor into this complicated equation?  God clears her throat. I guess I should stop ignoring her.

I’m betting,” I say. “There are too many hateable things and people.”

“You are SO right,” God says. “It’s too much for you. How about you let me do the hating?”

“That would be great!” I say. “I’ve got my list right here.” I hand it to her, but I can’t quite let go. She pulls. The list rips, leaving me clinging to a small corner of the page.

God glances down the list, rips it up, and explodes in laughter. She is a stampede of wild horses pounding the earth. She is an invasive species blooming bright yellow. She wraps her irrepressible presence around the artillery and dies blood red in the battlefield. She is chemo, killing all rapidly reproducing cells, innocent or lethal. She is a Supreme Court bent on destroying democracy, a river rising, a child playing near the den of the rattler. She is Source and the End.

“Hate won’t get you there,” she says, marching by in a parade of endangered species. She tosses me a floatation device, a flak jacket, and some abortion medications to distribute as needed. She puts a big fat hand out, taps her clawed foot, and waits. Reluctantly, I put the remaining corner of the hate list in her palm. She wads it up and eats it with determination reminiscent of Maxwell Smart. I should be happy. Relieved. But I want my list back. Hate is easier, vengeance feels good.

“Hey, God,” I say. “Turns out I don’t want you to do my hating for me. You’re not very good at it anyway.”

“You’re right,” God says. “I’m not.”

Aftermath

God flaps long black wings and lands gracefully on a large pile of debris while I gaze at what was once a fence but is now a line of uprooted bushes, broken promises, sticks, and mud. I wave. God takes human shape and waves back. A wide-brimmed hat shades her eyes from an ambitious morning sun. The FEMA people have come and gone.

We are creatures of the seasons, drawn along by the unstoppable orbit of earth and the long and short of things out of our control. We’ve learned to adapt. Even the meanest among us is glad for a cold drink on a hot day. Even the bravest does not welcome frostbite. When a season runs amok, and our shelters collapse, burn, or float away, we stand stripped of familiar, protective layers. Our dreaded smallness is revealed.

Both “aftermath” and “seasons” have etymological roots in agriculture. Knowing when to plant and knowing there will be a smaller, second crop available after harvest–these are as essential to survival as breathing—though not as automatic. I survey the aftermath of this season so far. It has severely eroded riverbanks, civility, and the pillars of our democracy.

I settle beside God. We say nothing. Not long ago, the flat surface we’re sitting on was a bridge plank from somewhere upstream. Now it’s woven into what the river has lifted, tossed, and left behind. It will not be a bridge again. I do not know which bridges will hold. I’m tired and afraid. God takes my hand, and we walk to the garden where seeds are belatedly sprouting. I am astonished to see the Lower Salmon River squash seeds I saved from last year making a go of it. I was sure they were rotten, infertile, or dead.

“Never say never,” God whispers, gently touching the sprouts.

“Never say always,” I counter. “I’m not sure what’s next, but it won’t be the same river, ever again.”

“Nothing is ever the same river,” God says.

I give God an ironic look and push my hand through her ephemeral chest. On the other side, there’s a new season as yet unnamed. At some point, I will call it home, but even so, it will be temporary.

God leans down, pulls a weed, and squints up at my wavering being. “There is no final resting place,” she says. “But the painted ponies love having riders like you.” She hands me a golden coin. I hand it back. She laughs, swallows the coin, and flies away. I have flotsam and jetsam to clear, wells to cleanse, and fires to build. So many fires to build.

Water

The river has risen to magnificence, inflicting random agonies. I play the pain on my old guitar and the pain plays me like water. We are an unlikely duet. I yield the melody to the flooding river because my ragged vocal cords cannot handle the range this song demands. There are high notes best expressed with compassion and exquisitely controlled vibrato, and bass notes so low they trouble the souls of those with ears to hear.

God dances on the surface of the swirling eddies, a child performing in her first recital, insects reveling in abundance. Entire homes float by. “What can we take apart?” God asks, rubbing millions of wet hands in anticipation. “And how shall we put things back together?”

I know I should volunteer but I have no idea where to start or what to do. “God,” I say, speaking against the thunder of boulders rolling by. “How can I help?”

“Good question,” God replies. I’m surprised. Usually, it’s God asking the good questions.

“Climb as high as you can, look across the valley, and find the place where earth meets sky. Then hold your thumb to the horizon and notice how your perception shifts.”

This is a trick I’ve done many times to shrink the size of an imposing moon, but always with ambivalence. I usually prefer an imposing moon and my own hazy beliefs about gravity and the relative size of things.

“I don’t want to do that,” I say to God. “Any other suggestions?”

“Sure,” God shrugs. “Do what you need to do. Take the moon home for all I care. I’ve made a million moons and there are more to come. They will always agitate the water until it turns into wine.”

Uprooted trees float by, lodge, and bend the current. I wade into icy shallows, kick debris off the fence, and watch the current take it away. God shows up in bib waders. I wonder if the old guy is foolish enough to try and fish. He has worms and sinkers. I shake my head. He grins a sloppy, open-mouthed grin.

God’s first suggestion comes back to mind, and I realize elevation is not a bad thing. I pack the guitar and prepare to begin this last ascent. I’ll not lift my thumb to the horizon, though, because perception doesn’t change the order of things. Instead, I will harken to Mother Mary’s wisdom and let it be.

The Constant is Change

“A kennel is different than a fenced yard,” I explained to God last evening as we problem-solved the nature of limits, dogs, and human frailties. Dogs naturally dig, bark, jump, protect, chase, growl, and express exuberant affection. This presents problems to the elderly, newly planted marigolds, and other tender things. God seems to think containment should include flow.

“I know the difference,” God said with a twinge of disdain. “But I want to be able to open the door and be done with it. I like things simple.”

What a lie! I risked looking straight at God who then splintered into a hungry blackbird, a broken bike, unearthed seedlings, an abandoned fawn, an icy river, and hops vines using last year’s growth to climb heavenward. A teaspoon of topsoil, a glance at sky–this is all the evidence anyone needs; God does not like things simple.

“Fine. So we’re not that simple,” God admitted, fading into the late-blooming lilacs. I filled the bird feeder, replanted snapdragons, marigolds, and basil, and imagined how I could upcycle the bike. It has a kickstand. That gave me hope. Even though the river is high and noisy, I slept well.

But an intrusive idea about yet another way to rearrange the living room occurred to me this morning, and a Paul Simon tune is on replay in my head. The bike is still broken and I need to build a fence. I’m trying to focus, but distractions take root like invasive weeds—they have no natural enemies. Possibilities plague me. What should I transform next?

The angelic face of change is often made of plastic and other petroleum products designed to enslave and deplete. And yet…

Change is what we are made of.

What would we do without rust and mildew, the molding peach, the dry rot spreading through brick and mortar? Should we bow down to the power of deterioration and thank the gods of decline? I think not, but I suspect it’s all the same to the Many-Sided God; unlike me, they are free and untethered.

“Ah, but you are free to choose your tethers.” God intrudes midsentence–appearing as punctuation and grammar, a parenthetical phrase gone rogue, coauthoring away, as unbidden as Paul Simon, as pernicious as bindweed. And as dangerous as an unruly dog who is way too happy to see me.

“Get down!” I yell. This is not an ideal way to interact with God, but I have no treats or tennis balls to throw, so I drop to my knees where it’s safer and tell myself it’s not a bad thing to be adored.

Life as a One-Act Play

Shades of green and lavender dance in the background. Even with eyes wide open, it’s impossible to tell if the room has walls or is defined more by water and isolation. Actors are vaguely aware of each other.

Me: (sermonizing to a nebulous offstage audience) Mother Earth is exhausted by this adolescent phase of humanity. We’re facing severe consequence. All it will take is one big planetary shrug and we’ll be a species known only by bones. We’ve failed to outgrow our epic selfishness, destructive impulsivity, and futile denial of mortality. Earth won’t clean up after us forever; our money and phony apologies won’t save us…

God: (muttering to self, pacing) She’s right. They should know better by now. Maybe I should have set firmer limits.

Me: (turning to God) Or maybe you’re sending mixed messages.

God: (slightly mystified) I thought love would be enough.

Me: (sad, defensive) I don’t know why you’d make that assumption. Love is a lot harder than you realize.

God: (indignant) You think I don’t know that?  I keep course-correcting with forgiveness and wearing my best clothes so that nature might have a chance to teach you something. I hate to mention this, but on other planets, things are going better.

Me: (shaken) But aren’t we your planet of choice? Aren’t we your favorites?

God: (thoughtfully muttering to self again) Too close to call. Tough to know how much more to invest. (Turning to me) Everyone wants to be my favorite, but actually, I’m my own favorite. It has to be that way.

Me: (indignant, arms crossed) Well then, I’m my own favorite, too.

God: (wryly) How’s your lumber supply? You’re aware of the supply chain problems, right?

Me: (trying to be funny) Are we talking ark? Greenhouse? Firewood?

God: (expanding to ginormous) All of the above. And more. Add marshmallows to your list.

Me: (despairing) And coffins? We’re gonna need lots of coffins.

God: (grabbing my hand with tenderness, a thousand eyes crying) Yes. I can’t change that. But eventually, they’ll be empty, baby. Empty.

Me: (trying to yank my hand free) Are we talking resurrection or decomposition?

God: (many heads nodding) Yes.

Light fades to the point where photoreceptor cells in the well-developed vertebrate retina are challenged, and the cones let go. Color dies but thanks to the rods, a set of hazy gray paths are still visible. They merge at the vanishing point.