Fittings and Flushing

At 5:53 this morning, I was chanting fittings and flushing over and over because the new toilet seems to be malfunctioning which I must investigate so it can be returned within the grace period if need be. And I need to call the plumbing fittings store because I’m in the market for a new pressure tank.

I do not allow myself to get out of bed until 6 a.m., so given my distractibility, if I wake early and think of things, I recite them until I’m up and can write them on a list.

This discourages God. The holy art of being chill eludes me even though, as God has pointed out for decades, fretting at dawn does not necessarily enhance the chances of a good day.

But today, the chanting paid off. By 9 o’clock I had called the fittings store; the size of pressure tank we need will have to be ordered, not just picked up. And I’d flushed enough to realize the flapper chain was too short. An easy fix.

Next, there’s the broken screen door handle. And powdery mildew is taking over the garden, and right at this moment, a wasp is buzzing around in the living room. Even though we usually have five or six swatters available, I can’t find a single one.

But I do find God, standing motionless in Mountain Pose on the porch.

“Hello, God,” I say. “What’re you doing out here?”

“Considering autumn. Funerals. Firewood. Frost. Harvest.”

“Want me to memorize a list for you?” I ask facetiously.

“No.”

God picks up one of the onions drying in the sun. She peels away dirt-encrusted layers until she reaches the moist, succulent flesh and releases the pungent signature of onion. “This will take care of it.”

Only God can do this with an onion. She had summer mark this tragic year with three gargantuan pumpkins, renegade tomato plants, and cauliflower heads, white as snow, which we’d forgotten were there.

Spring is one of my worst distractions. We always overplant, but this will change.

Nothing stays the same. Nothing lasts. To know this is a burden and a blessing.

Between impermanence and consciousness are caves and canyons worn by water, made beautiful by clay, resisting, yielding, and resisting again.

Letting go.

Hanging on.

And letting go again.

That tasty cauliflower grew to fruition unnoticed, but the gigantic, neon pumpkins are entirely obvious, frantically ripening a raucous orange on frost-damaged vines. God and I are cheering them on–God perched comfortably on the pinnacle of forever; me, less centered, patting the pumpkin’s belly, dreading the coming winter, but imagining pie.

Uncle Bud

Just days ago our beloved Uncle Bud fell and did not regain consciousness. This past year his body and mind had started giving way, and our collective family grief began. Now it’s in full force. He’s gone.

Among his many achievements and passions, Uncle Bud was a master fisherman. I walk by the river, seeing it through his eyes, feeling his hand-rubbing oh-boy enthusiasm from the inside out. God walks alongside, quiet.

“It wasn’t all rosy,” she says. “For him or your mom…”

“I know,” I interrupt. “They didn’t talk about it much, but I know.”

Uncle Bud was generous, kind, and positive. Filled with good humor and gratitude. In contrast, his childhood included poverty and difficulties most people don’t have to face. In a moment of rare self-disclosure my mom told me that she and Uncle Bud had a pact: They would be there for each other, and they would never, ever give in to the negativity and deprivation they experienced as children.

I’ve known a lot of bitter, unkind people, who constantly blame others for their troubles. Their parents, the government, teachers, partners, neighbors, children—anyone but themselves. Fault-finding is a toxic hobby; blame obliterates gratitude. This is ironic because gratitude lifts the spirit. But for some reason, finding fault is simple, and blame is easy. Gratitude takes effort.

“Why is blaming so seductive?” I ask God.

“That’s a no-brainer,” God answers. “It’s lack of center. Lack of compassion. Insecure people crave admiration. They focus on what’s wrong around them to build themselves up. They’re takers, not givers. Enough is never enough and they are never to blame.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I feel that tension all the time.”

“What tension?” God asks with false innocence.

“I want to be positive and cool like Uncle Bud, but I also want everyone to notice how much I give, how hard I try. I tell myself it’d be good for them to be grateful. But that’s not how it works is it?”

“Being positive is a choice, and gratitude’s a choice. You can’t demand gratitude,” God says with a knowing grin. “Trust me. I’ve tried!”

 “Ha! You’re almost as funny as Uncle Bud.” I smile sadly.

“Thanks,” God says. “He really was amazing.” I nod. We watch the trout rise. And together we remember Uncle Bud with sadness, love, and deep well-earned, willingly offered gratitude for the courageous choices he made and all the ways he added happiness to the lives around him.

Bored

God yawned as I complained about the demands of the coming day. This was not unusual. Sometimes God and I get bored with each other. To liven things up, I keep a steady supply of driftwood and other distractions nearby. There are old windows with rippled glass, stacks of books, blank canvasses, angular stones, and stairs going nowhere.

“I’m not bored,” God claimed between yawns. “I just didn’t sleep well.”

“The nights are getting colder,” I said. “Maybe you need more blankets.”

I had no idea what makes for a good night’s sleep for the Entirety of the Universe, and I don’t know where the Holy Ones rest. But I was a little chilly last night. Funny how we impose our own solutions on the problems of others. This might be a loving impulse, but it can also be quite self-centered.

Besides, I wasn’t sure I believed him. The yawning wasn’t the only sign. It was the restlessness in the room, the drumming fingers, the sense of confinement and finality. It was half-eaten toast, the dull movement of time, the impossibility of eradicating weeds, the distant call of migrating geese.

 “I don’t know, God,” I said. “I think you are bored. Maybe you didn’t rest well because you’ve lost your zest for life.

“Maybe,” God agreed. “I’ve been feeling a little down lately. Humans are growing increasingly abhorrent to the rest of the galaxy. You’re so darn short-sighted and greedy. I don’t see things ending up the way I’d hoped.”

Sometimes, when God talks like this, I fold inward in despair. But this time, I rallied. “God, you need to get a grip,” I said. “You are not helpless, and you aren’t a quitter. Don’t give up on us—or at least, on some version of us. You’ll feel terrible if you do.”

God took a last swig of coffee and sighed. “You might be right. Where’d you put those extra covers? Maybe I will try a little nap.”

I grabbed a down comforter I’d found at a thrift shop and the patchwork quilt my grandmother made from worn-out clothing. God curled his weary body, and I tucked him in. “Rest well,” I whispered as I kissed the wrinkled forehead of eternity.

“Thanks,” he mumbled. He snuggled deep into the stubbornly hopeful scraps of endless generations and began to snore. I tiptoed out to the garden, sat on my favorite boulder, and peacefully imagined the shimmering possibilities on a horizon I will never see.

Believing

Humans are natural believers but the things we choose to believe in vary radically: Exercise, Love, Money, Science, B vitamins, Power, God, Not-God, Red Meat, Medicine, Herbs, Famous People, even Wishes made on Falling Stars. The propensity to believe makes us vulnerable to being duped. And often, instead of being open or skeptical, we act as if loyalty to a belief is a virtue. It’s humiliating and painful to be wrong, so we ferociously defend what we believe in.

“And yet…” The Creative Force woven into all things seen and unseen jigs into view decked out as a troupe of Finnish dancers raising money for the war.

“Hello, God,” I say, waving. I clap to the beat as The Troupe does synchronous high kicks and fancy footwork. At intermission, they link elbows, pass the hat, and fly away. I assumed they were Finnish, but there’s an Irish feel in the remaining air.

What makes something Finnish or Irish or Nigerian? Who’s in? Who’s out? No matter how glittery or damning, all the fine distinctions are temporary. Driven by beliefs, such dichotomous thinking can cause great suffering. It’s deadly to believe rather than inquire. We overlook the still, small path that leads us alongside the unknown and unknowable.

“That path is narrow and dangerous,” God warns in the strained voices of those who’ve fallen away. “Unknowing isn’t safe.”

“It’s safer than pretending,” I say. “Safer than being certain something is true when it might not be.”

“And are you certain of that?” God teases in a thousand laughing voices. I laugh, too. I admire these courageous, vague expressions of the God Who’s Fallen Away. They don’t name themselves God, but I do.

“This may seem obvious,” God says. “But I need neither definition nor defense.”

“I beg to differ,” I argue. “What about the least of you?”

There’s a tall woman in a Russian prison, a short man beaten senseless, a desperate woman forced to be a mother, flood and fire victims, prisons burgeoning, the rich getting richer as the poor sink further into despair.

“Ah, I see what you mean,” God agrees. “But definition? Defenses? These won’t help. Justice. Mercy. Lives laid down, not weapons raised up. Wealth distributed, not hoarded.”

“Much harder,” I say in a sad voice. “Nearly impossible.”

And again, God agrees and without further ado, fades into the nightly news.

Why not admit I know nothing but do something outlandishly braver regardless? I ask myself as I get ready for bed. May as well take a few risks. You’re going to die either way.

This may not be the best way to fall asleep, but it’s an excellent way to wake up.

Guidance for the Chronically Critical

I hail from a long line of judgmental souls who sometimes wish they were kinder than they are (or were). I know this both as judged and judger. And I wrestle mightily with each.

“Me, too,” God chimes in with a gentle punch to my shoulder. It’s hot today. We’re enjoying the living room, cooled by the thick cement floor and sizable rocks absorbing the ambient heat. This makes me happy and severely judgmental of anyone who thoughtlessly builds shelter without passive solar features. Cooling and heating with fossil fuels provides easy comfort while hastening our extinction. I’m also mean to people who forget to turn off the lights, use too much toilet paper, do laundry with hot water, or leave their engines running for more than 30 seconds.

“Judging is a trap,” God says. “A sure way to slide into the lake of sticky, jealous, self-centered misery.”

“But you’re like the Judger-in-Chief. How do you avoid the lake of sticky, jealous, self-centered misery?”

“Oh, I don’t. I slide right in. There’s always someone swimming around in that cesspool of righteousness. I usually bring lifejackets and a ladder.”

“And?” I ask. I imagine God offering flotation devises to weary people dogpaddling around in the soup of their own harsh judgments.

“Usually, no takers. But occasionally someone sheds those weighty layers of pride, takes my hand, and asks for a towel.” God smiles. “I like it so much when that happens.”

“But they got there because they correctly assessed that others are stupid, hateful, selfish, or inferior, right?”

 I smile a wonky smile. I know my judgments aren’t always accurate or loving. Furthermore, judgments leveled at me fail to consider how hard I’m trying. And finally, people foolishly judge God, or impose cruel judgements in the name of God, causing injury rather than healing. “So, what’s there to do?” I add.

“Forgive, forgive, forgive,” God says. “Forgive.”

“I knew you were going to say that.” I shake my head. “But sometimes, I don’t want to, or I don’t know how.”

“Work on it,” God says. “Take your soul to a car wash. Eat some of your choice words for dessert. Refocus on justice, not revenge. Give with a smile; don’t take with a snarl. Say thank you. Life’s neither easy nor fair, and that can be incredibly sad, so once in a while, curl up and cry it out.”

God lays down and curls tight to demonstrate. I’m afraid the tears are going to begin so I hop off the couch and try to tickle God’s underarms. The last thing I need today is a weeping God.

“Gottcha!” God yells, grabs my arm, and pulls me down to tickle back. We roll around like bear cubs, nipping, laughing, trying to pin each other.

“It’s okay to bite a little,” God says. “But don’t break the skin.”

Thin Ice

My religious friends keep warning me that God and I are skating on thin ice. Especially when God names himself Prostitute or Fat Boy. Especially when she manifests as many, and the guarantees are few. We shrug. It’s what we do.

A man named Mick once told me that our postings make him laugh until he cries. He was puzzled as to why. He reads them every Sunday in an alley where an apple tree drips fruit to no avail, and he sips a yellow beer for communion.

The peyote that is God brings paralysis. The river that is God brings release. It’s the author God who writes you using metaphor and mint, drawing symbols in the sand for your protection, throwing ashes to the wind to guide you home.

We are mostly made of water: a fluid interaction between energy and thirst, a form of transportation, a sacrificial lamb. A sheer veneer of ice embodies danger with a certain kind of grace. But the pace of truth exhausts me, and I’m tempted to give up.

God removes his mittens. Offers me bare hands. The crowd of God applauds as I stand on shaky skates and push off using boulders and other people’s dreams. The sheen of God beneath me, the sky of God above, I am hypothermic mercy and cold, defiant love.

My remaining bones grow brittle with God’s blessing. I no longer take the time to make my bed. God shakes her head. When salt dissolves in water, ions form electrons, positively charged. With saline in my veins, the poison makes a promise that I’ll live another day.

Fat Boy tries to juggle. My Prostitute wears pink. She says, “Look at me, I’m funny, and when I’m cold, I’m slick.” But when I look, it’s only water and a wiser way to die. There’s thunder in the distance. And like Mick, I start to laugh. Until I cry.

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.