Volcanic

God slept rough last night alongside the cooling embers of volcanic rock from the eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo in Africa. She awoke exposed, porous and pure as the lava itself, but this did not make her happy. She shook me awake to ask if I would bury her under the acres of rich loam currently planted in alfalfa so she could begin reclaiming her complexity. To be simplified to lava is painful.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed as I opened my eyes in the dim light of dawn and ran my hands over a face so jagged and pitted it made terrible acne seem easy. “Oh sweet God. You’ve become stone.”

“Yes,” God said, woeful, but with a shred of hope. “Lava stone. I’ve heard it has healing properties, but I’d rather move along. Bury me in the topsoil, please. There’s still time. I’ll take care of the rest.”

I reluctantly agreed. We held hands as we walked through the verdant fields made fertile by thousands of years of runoff from the surrounding and willing hills. I was glad I’d remembered my cowhide gloves, both because the hand of God was razor sharp and because the shovel I was dragging along was old. The handle was splintered, and I knew I would be digging for a long time, possibly the rest of my life.

The squawking of the wild and noisy geese nesting across the river helped me find my center as God chose the perfect place to be interned. I wished for another way, but life consists of trying to solve things that are not solvable. This is something gradually revealed over the years allotted to those defined as alive. They say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. This is true, but then the same can be said for all deaths; ultimately all problems are subjective and temporary, and all deaths seem permanent.

The bounce of sound across water is predictable but not guaranteed.

“God,” I said. “Are you sure?” I was wondering why God insisted on being buried on such a beautiful day. I wondered why I had to be the one digging. I wondered where this weathered old shovel came from.

“Yes,” God said, the nod of her head causing tremors under my feet. Her voice is not measured in decibels but rather revealed in the marrow of reverberating bone. I broke ground, putting body and soul into the sink of the shovel, giving thanks for the leather protecting my thin, unlovely skin from slivers and blisters. I have callouses, but they are often an insufficient defense for these long hot days and the softening effect of sweat.

Under the Influence

My head moves more fluidly (inside and out) after a smattering of beer—usually about half a bottle of Moose Drool. I achieve similar results by playing with the right amount of paint, rusted metal, knotty slabs of wood, rocks, or dirt. The right amount of God is a different formula. It ranges from less than none to cosmic tons.

“What do you mean, similar results?” God asks lazily from the kitchen where he’s adding a lot of cream to his coffee.

“Hmmm. Let me think about that,” I say, as if I’m going to answer. I’m sipping my Moose Drool, adjusting my lists, and enjoying the bright yellow birds hopping around in our diversely-cultured front yard. God melts through the window and into the lawn so quietly the birds don’t even notice they are now hopping around on God’s chest. This tickles God. He tries to hold still but the earth trembles. The great heart of God is gathering force as it comes apart in the dirt.

The trick with God is to stall. He’s got the worst case of attention deficit disorder ever. Humans with attention problems face a lot of challenges, but with God, it’s just another glorious day of goldfinches flitting across the wide expanse of everywhere at once.

Ah ha! Everywhere at once. That’s it. That’s my answer. The result of just enough paint, canvas, rock, metal, or beer is the momentary assurance that I’m in the right river, and I’m not going to drown. I’m everywhere and everyone. connected but alone, safe and in mortal danger; and I accept this eternally transitory condition as my own. As God. As a bright yellow bird.

“God,” I shout. “I have it!”

God surfaces and blinks. He’d fallen asleep among the holy invisibilities of existence. “You have what?” he asks, not fully awake.

“I have your answer,” I say, disappointed at his apparent confusion.

God scratches his rangy head. “I think I forgot the question, honey. Sorry about that.”

“God,” I say. “Sometimes, it seems like you’re not paying any attention to me at all. You’re too busy enjoying the yellow birds.”

 “You’re right. You’re absolutely right,” God admits with a guilty grin. “They’re so beguiling and fragile. So perfect and temporary. But then, so are you. I’ll try harder.”

“O.K.” I agree. It’s time to get dressed. I put on my bright yellow pants and a yellow hoodie.

“Look!” I shout to God from my yellowness. “This should make it easier for you.”  I’ve also added hot pink high-tops to my outfit. We both think this is very funny.

Settling

There are short-lived truths that go sour, longer truths that offer comfort but eventually wear out like a well-loved quilt, and eternal truths that hide among the bulrushes, debts, and sanctuaries. Physical punishment or harsh words will stop unwanted behavior in its tracks, but the motives will dive underground and propel from below.

“Ok,” God says, “Then grace is like a shovel.”

Your offspring don’t own you, and you don’t own your offspring, and we are all the offspring of many. Boundaries are a constant negotiation, but we trundle along, fostering and adopting, breaking and healing, astonished and befuddled; the urges and joys of reproduction writ large.

“Of course,” God says. “My image in the darkened glass.”

There are forces that undermine balance, reduce generosity, and recast restraint as shameful. The meaning of enough is flattened by trucks exceeding the speed limit. Avarice can be dressed up to look like self-care, and acquisition is a seductive master, a damsel in distress, a mirage of power.

“Yes,” God says. “And forgiveness is a home-cooked meal.”

Fear is a natural response to the threat of pain, death, or humiliation. Belligerence is also a natural response. Hatred is the venom produced by fear and belligerence. The poison flows both directions—outward and inward.

“True,” God sighs. “And the antidote…”

God’s voice fades. I lean in, hoping God just needs to clear her throat or something. God is going to say the antidote is love, right? Or maybe compassion, or courage, or sacrifice? Silence reigns. No singing river. No chattering birds. No traffic. No wind. Not even the distant opening or closing of doors.

“Is this it? The antidote is nothing?” I think to myself.

“Noooo,” my inner self protests. I realize I’m dangerously close to settling for a short truth, even if i know it will grow bitter with time, even if I know it will lose its shape like cheap underwear. As long as it disguises the taste of the poison in my mouth–I don’t care.

I look straight into the vibrant universe and hope for a reassuring word.

“Sorry,” God finally says. “I’m all out of platitudes.”

“I don’t mind,” I say, thrilled that God has spoken. “I can handle that. Have a nice day.” I chuckle.

“You crack me up,” God says, laughing. We stand face to face, our foreheads touching, eyes closed, breathing. Then we link arms and walk to the garden to plant a few more marigolds among the rows of kale.

Hair

Human hair is fascinating. We’re not nearly as furry as our ancestors and cousins, but we still sprout the stuff. Left alone, it signals everything from how old you are to how well you slept last night. But of course, we don’t leave it alone. We cover it, color it, play with it, yank it out, let it sluff off, implant, extend, shave, curl, straighten; We cut it, dreadlock it, donate it, and occasionally douse it to kill off the lice.

We’re sometimes born bald. We sometimes die bald. I was yanked from the womb early with forceps that left my head badly misshapen. Fine tufts gradually grew in, and my hair was unremarkable for decades. But then God let cancer have a go at me, and the chemo stripped it all back off.

“What???” God says, emphatically.

“Yes, all of it. Legs, arms, eyebrows, privates…”

“I know what you mean, but ‘God let cancer have a go?’ C’mon. Is that really how you see it?”

“What other way is there?” Me, arms crossed. God, preening in the mirror.

I don’t want platitudes for an answer. In my limited view, if God is God, then that’s that. Good and evil might seem definable in the moment, but as time in our mortal bodies passes, clarity fades and boundaries blur. Any kind of loss, torture, crucifixion, or disease takes a terrible toll. But endings, unsettlings, baldings, and pain often provide the energy necessary for rebirth, joy, peace, and health.

“True,” God says. “But even that isn’t the whole story.”

“So, then what’s the whole story?” I ask. But I have a pretty good idea what God is going to say.

“There is no such thing as a whole story,” God says, with a grin larger than necessary. “The wholeness of the story is in the process. There are no tragic or happy endings, because there are no endings.”

“I knew you were going to say something impossible like that,” I say. “And you know they feel like endings, right?” I tip my head to the side and add, “At least you didn’t blame anyone.”

God touches my face, kisses my head, and nods. “Nice chatting, but I need to go now. I’ve got a hair appointment. Just a trim, but I’m thinking of adding strands of purple here and there.”

God is beautifully grey, but purple will be a nice addition. And as for me, my hair’s been more or less back for five years now. I’m into bleach and occasional blue, but I have tubes of red, green, pink, and turquoise at the ready. I like having choices, but–here’s a small confession—if I don’t like the outcomes, it’s nice to have God around to help me reconfigure.

Nothing to be Done

Sometimes I take God by the neck and shake him until he goes limp and falls like rain and dust and shards of stained glass at my feet—a deadly mix of elements within my power to restore but broken and unlikely. I walk away barefoot, continually astonished at the human propensity to self-destruct.

Usually, the high wind warnings are accurate. Anything of value or consequence must be weighted down or be lost. But somehow the birds stay light and navigate the currents of air with enviable grace. It’s easy to resort to anger. It’s tempting to bow down to lesser gods and find temporary nourishment by eating the tender parts of your own soul. Tempting, but not wise. This morning, I pause and chew my thumb nail instead. Penitent. Pensive. Wishing I had the patience of Job or the dark wings of Kali.

God assembles himself. I keep my hands in my lap. God swivels his hips. I nod noncommittally. God leans in and whispers, “I can tell you where the chickens are hiding their eggs.” He’s flirting. I resist.

“I can predict the next storm,” he says. I shrug.

“Hell, I can control the next storm,” he adds, trying to get a rise out of me. It works.

“Do you think I don’t know that?” I ask, exasperated. “Do you not understand how hard that is to hear? You can control a storm but not an army? You can make it rain, but things die of drought and starvation?”

When I’m like this, sometimes God gets irritable and defends himself, claiming to suffer along with everyone else. Sometimes, God gets all loving and huge and tries to instill hope. And sometimes, God just takes a single sip of my dark morning beer and waits.

And I wait. And the silence reminds me of wonder. And the slow-moving clouds remind me of water. And I remember the unusually fat worm I dug up yesterday. Of their own volition, my calloused hands come together in a kind of praise—a grudging acceptance of very thin skin.

There’s nothing to be done about God. Ground cover only lasts so long. Light breaks through. Dirt blows in. Rain eventually falls and the magical seeds sprout; rhizomes shoot along in the dark until they surface uninvited. The tenacity is a splendor and a curse.

“You remind me of quackgrass,” I tell God, breaking our shared revery.

“Funny,” God says. “I was thinking the same thing about you.”

Goodwill

Today, I am wearing polka dot pants and a striped shirt. My hair is bedheaded in an unattractive way and my black and green socks feature a famous golfer. Yes, I’ve been to the church of Goodwill again, and as usual, God was present in abundance. I had to leave, but it was clear that God planned to stay until closing. While I was there, he managed to load five carts full of treasures as he chatted up the Russians and a shy woman who looked Asian. He commiserated with the disabled man and paid for three people’s purchases.

I don’t know what he did when the store closed for the night, but I came back to this borrowed house in this borrowed town and did laundry. We’re here because my friend Max is clinging, perhaps unwillingly, to the last strands of a well-lived life. At present, I’ve hidden myself upstairs to write and think. I hope God doesn’t come by. I’m preoccupied and sad, and it would be tedious to review all his finds.

“Tedious?” God says, incredulous. “You might be the slowest learner ever. How long have we been acquainted?”

“Depends,” I sigh. “At least half-a-century. But if we go with Psalms 139, then longer.”

For some reason, God thinks this is funny. Maybe I do too. Or maybe not. Who wants to count up every second they’ve breathed the rarefied air of this good earth? Music from downstairs drifts up. “I love it when you sing to me,” croons David Gabriel, singing Steven Merritt’s song, The Book of Love. It’s part of the Zoom pub quiz process that ends this semester’s happiness class. My job is to stay offline and out of sight. I’m fairly good at both, but I’m worried about God. He’s in a mood.

“Should I sneak down and wink at everyone on the screen?” God asks. “Or just check my Facebook page and download megabytes of things?”

“No,” I say firmly. “You’d bump him offline, and if you show up, you’ll cause trouble.”

“Exactly,” God says. “I’d like that.”

“What makes you happy, God?” I ask, hoping to distract him.

“Money,” God says. I roll my eyes. “Doing whatever I feel like doing. Driving a fast car. Taking more than my share. Getting drunk and stoned and all messed up. Keeping my wife pregnant.”

“Stop it,” I say, plugging my ears. This is not the time for irony.

God shrugs. “You asked,” he says. “Want to see some of my stuff? I found three navy blue shirts, this hat, and…” He glances at my face and stops mid sentence. His voice cracks. “There’s nothing more either of us can do,” he says. “Death will come when it comes.”

“But you’re hanging out there, right?” I manage to say.

“I can’t believe you’re even asking,” God says. But he says it in a soft, kind voice. It’s then that I notice the logo on the shirts and the baseball hat. Mariners. Max’s favorite team.

Comfort

God is thick like a down quilt this morning. Thick in the air, thick in the snow, thick in the garden dirt, thick in the fire, thick in sadness, thick in my chest.

Maybe lingering, maybe gone, is a loved one of such large heart and honest soul that the world has a hollow sound right now. An empty echo. The long vibration of the gong. The bell that tolls. I could look to the blackbirds for comfort or the white hills with their dusting of snow, but I don’t want comfort. I want wisdom. It eludes me.

Yesterday was warmer. I found evidence that the raspberry roots are taking life seriously and have begun to send up dark green signs of hope. We could have a bright red harvest next year and maybe even a few berries later this year. The long arc of transplantation requires patience and faith. I sat back on my haunches and gave thanks. But as the day ended, black doubts took hold, and I went to bed hungry.

“Good morning, little one,” God says gently as she shakes off the majesty of thickness and shrinks into human view. A gift. God’s body thrown across the railroad tracks of fear and despair. God, willing to be a slender apparition, glowing in momentary light. I’m torn. I know God is dead and alive, here and there, atomic and cosmic. But I’m no longer sure I speak the right language to be fully understood, and I have these wounds that open in the night. I use whatever pressure I can muster to close them, but they will never heal.

“Good morning, God,” I answer, staring out the one unshaded window. “I don’t feel like moving, or I’d offer you some coffee. Sorry.”

“No worries, honey,” God says. “I know where you keep the cups.”

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.