There Will Come a Day

When I got out my vitamin organizer to take my supplements this morning, today’s cubby was empty. I must have dipped in twice yesterday. No wonder I feel overwrought; too much B-complex and an overdose of magnesium may account for my anxious dream last night wherein Barack Obama helped me bandage the finger I cut making his family a salad. I don’t like forgetting, and I don’t like anxious dreams.

But dream we must. Forget we must.  Decline we must. Die we must. There will come a day when the puppy digging in the compost right now is an old, grey-faced mutt, and there will come a morning when no matter how watchful I am, I won’t glimpse my sister, half-crazed on her 4-wheeler, chasing down a skunk with her shotgun.

“Sorry I’m late,” God says as she rushes in. “You’ve rearranged your writing space. I like it.”

“Oh, hi God,” I say. “Coffee?”

God holds up her hand. “No, thanks. I had a cup with your neighbor, and I’m going to treat myself to a latte later. Still catching up on the fiascos of Easter/Passover/Ramadan. And Ukraine…” Her voice cracks.

“Hmmm,” I say. “Want some vitamins or something?”

God smiles and leans forward. “You know I’m not vengeful, right?” I nod and wait. “And you know I don’t play favorites, right?” I nod again, wishing I could be an exception. “And you know branches will always grow toward the sun and move gracefully in the wind, and things you drop will fall toward the center, right?”

I nod a third time suddenly feeling quite sad. “And where do the things you drop go?” I ask in a quiet voice, turning my face away. But God sees my eyes welling up anyway. She makes a fist of her giant hand and thumps herself hard in the chest. “Right here,” she says, and hits herself again. “Right here.”

When I sleep, I shroud the windows in purple velvet drapes. It occurs to me that I’d like my body wrapped in these before it is laid to rest in the garden. “Sounds like a good plan,” God says, voice fading. “I like purple.”

I have the intention of wiping my eyes and nodding again, but neither are possible because I have dissipated into the moment. The drapes are sun-streaked, dusty, and elegant. Granted, it may be an idiosyncratic or imagined elegance, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the gravity-defying blackbird perched on the top branch of the wind-whipped cottonwood.

Bruised

God and I were sitting in our pajamas near a nice fire, watching the sky, hoping the storm wouldn’t bring the cold temperatures predicted. Hoping the planet would somehow survive the ravages of greed. I was examining an ugly bruise on my forearm. Essentially, bruises occur when capillaries near the surface break and spill blood. Thin skin increases the risk.

Thousands of years ago, a prophet wrote that God wouldn’t take advantage of a bruised reed. There was no mention of bruised arms, egos, or disintegrating hips, but why would this assertion be necessary? What kind of God would go around beating up injured, weakened people, or break an already bruised reed?

“Um, God,” I say, “What’s your point with that whole bruised reed thing?”

God’s full attention swings toward me, a lumbering presence, a set of boots. I pull my sleeve down to cover the purple blotch. A tiny fraction of God’s focus is enough to end life as we know it, but I risk such things because in the end, it doesn’t matter. We’re sitting on a second-hand couch. I don’t care if it gets scorched.

“Why do you ask?” God says, warm breath laced with lavender and the allure of summer.

“Nice move,” I mumble and shift my gaze to the sparrows landing on the icy fence. As most four-year-olds know, Why? has no final answer. Asking why is a way to prolong the conversation, to shift the burden back.

I turn again to the God on my couch. “I ask because…” I am inundated with unwelcome insights. I hate bruised reeds. If I were God, I’d make a bonfire out of those damned reeds. How is it possible to walk alongside the bruising and the bruised? I don’t like wounded healers, and I don’t want to be one.

We sit. The wind is picking up, the chill becoming dangerous.

The ancient gaze of God is kind. “You love what you think is whole and beautiful because your vision is shallow.”

I close my eyes.

The primordial voice of God is gentle. “You love stories with endings because the untold threatens your sense of control.”

I cover my ears.

The wounded hand of God is warm as it hovers over mine. “You love stones because the bruises don’t show.”

I open one eye.

It’s not a single hand but a thousand; mottled, thick veined, and open. I choose one, entwine our fingers, and wait. God willing, the frozen ground will eventually soften toward spring when both planting and burying will be easier.  “Oh, we’re willing,” God says as the sky dumps snow. “But are you?”

Bathwater

Desmond Tutu arranged to have his body reduced to bone with water instead of fire. But then, where does the water go? In the darkest hour, this is what I ask over and over. “Where does the water go?” There’s no answer. I imagine God’s warm hands emerging from the dim mysteries of night to massage away my dread, but night runs its course faithful to its purpose and somehow, I rest.

God is the baby thrown out because the bathwater has grown so murky, but we hate admitting mistakes, don’t we?  Polluted, opaque waters create a dangerous urgency. Rabbits introduced in Australia with no natural predators, the wrongheaded trapping of coyotes and other wild beings, coffins surfacing in the flood; these are just a few of the frightening ways our intentions circle back, contaminated.

Light finally appears, brash and naked. I am drenched in the vivid orange of willows, awaiting an arrival that has already happened. I am dead to the night, dead to myself, alive to the day, and it is good.

The end and beginning, elephants, elevations, evolution, the vibrant midnight blue I created from discarded paint. All approach perfection. But even with perfection, there are problems. The eye of God I see seeing me blinks because there is dust in the morning air. The dust is of God’s own making, but I stirred the dark, dark blue and painted it on our most obvious wall. When I stare long enough, I can see all the way through.

There are many ways to be incontinent. I am proud of mine. The leakage of reason into the vast ocean of unknowing is often thought to be a toxic form of erosion, but it needn’t be. I am living proof that even landlocked nations can learn to swim.

“Come on in,” God yells from the place where all rain and grief begin. She’s floating shamelessly on her back, splashing her fat little hands, delighted. “The water’s fine.”

I laugh. There is nothing fine or safe about this new day or this water, but it is what we are made of.  It is what we bleed into and what might wash us clean. It is the amniotic fluid from whence we came. God swims to the shore and takes my hand. We stand ankle-deep and skip stones across the rippled surface. God’s feet are bioluminescent. Mine are clay.

Speaking Terms

Yesterday, God and I were not on speaking terms. Today, a purifying spring snow is falling, the beer is cold, and I have repented. It was partly God’s fault, but I’m the one repenting. It works better that way. God can be a real handful, but after I calm down, I don’t mind cajoling him along. It’s that or fire him, and I don’t want to fire him: I need the help. We all need the help. Even the toughest among us need the help.

“Not true,” the Bruising Force of God says, smearing bacon fat on the last piece of toast. “Well, maybe true,” he admits, chewing with his holy mouth open.

“Sometimes, you disgust me,” I say, trying to focus on the garden instead of God’s missing teeth, the dead bodies in Ukraine, or the grief inherent in being human. Pandora is playing my Eva Cassidy station. I turn up the volume to drown out the smacking noises. Long ago, a friend introduced me to Eva’s voice—though Eva had already died of breast cancer. She didn’t survive long enough to enjoy her success. My friend does not remember any of this because her memories have come as untethered as cheap kites in sporadic wind.

“Cheap. Fancy. Doesn’t matter. They all come back to earth,” God says, as he brushes crumbs off his shirt. “Write that down,” he adds. “That’ll be a good line.” I glare out the window. The snow is thicker now, each flake a mesmerizing angularity, falling straight and heavy. I wonder if the weight will break branches.

“Yes,” God says, still pontificating. “Branches will break. Oceans will rise. There will be surges and recedings. But in the meantime, I’d sure like another piece of toast.”

My wish to bring God down a notch is palpable, but I manage to get up, walk calmly to the kitchen, and make more toast.

Transparencies

There are days when dinosaurs, cockroaches, and head lice provide me with a certain comfort. The deliberate ignorances and cruel choices of our species are hardly inspiring, but when I consider the magnificence of survival and the wonders of extinction over the inconceivable span of years these creatures represent, I relax. We can all relax.

Consider the lesson of the glass winged butterfly (Greta Oto). Freed of human tunnel vision, we can ride the tails of invisibility and let our perspectives shrink and swell. Trippy. Who needs externally induced altered states when you can consider the history of our planet and become completely disoriented, bodily displaced? As one researcher noted, being transparent makes for great camouflage. There’s no point in hiding cumbersome errors, glaring false starts, or neon selfish longings. Why not own up to our foibles, strip down to essence, and have a good laugh at ourselves as we give up or start over? In a cosmic, tragic sort of way, we are hilarious. This may be the sole reason humans have consciousness; we can laugh. God likes to laugh.

Or maybe, it’s terror. We inflict terror on each other, and when we do, we often reach out of our bodies to see if anyone is there to help. We come apart so easily because we’re afraid of being nothing, but here’s the funny part: We are everything; the thorn and the rose.

Across the meadow, the Artist is painting roses with blood—your blood, the neighbor’s blood, God’s blood, the soldier’s blood.

“Please,” I whisper to the Artist. “No more roses.”

The Artist pauses, hands me a brush, and with a smile that brings tears to my eyes, says, “Paint what you will.”

“No, I’m not that kind of artist,” I protest, holding the dripping brush away from myself. But I see that the blood is holy, and I relent. I paint myself red. I paint the Artist red. It occurs to me we are the embodied Scarlet Letter, marked as shameful, marked as chosen, marked as doomed, marked as loved.

These absurd contradictions make God laugh. I laugh. The Artist laughs. The dinosaurs laugh. Lice and lichen, seconds and centuries, grief and gladness, daylight and starlight, the endless longing for justice, mercy, and release. In my humbled alteredness, I understand there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend and sadly, there’s no greater delusion than to think you can preserve your life or anything you love anyway.

“Well said,” the Artist comments gently, combing through my hair with a fine-toothed comb, checking for lice. “I have nothing to add.” I know that’s not exactly true, but I let it go for now.

Bucket Lists

Nearly all the windows in our house are oriented south for solar gain, but the view to the north is exceptionally nice. Our inner space reflects a set of values, givens, and limits. We’ve filled most rooms with books and rocks to hide lapses in judgment. Outside, the garden has gradually improved—I love repurposing metal coated with rust and twisted stumps that are not yet dust. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

“Yes,” God says, disrupting my existential mulling. “I love repurposing, too. Especially the fragile and distorted.”

“Hi there, God,” I say in a falsely chipper voice. “How about you be nice and take care of me today? Let’s exercise, write, do some art, drink green smoothies, and then after I’ve fallen fast asleep, how about you carry me gently into the next realm?”

“What?” God says in mock surprise. “You want to cash it in?”

“Well, yeah. Or, maybe,” I say. “I don’t like aging. I want an easy way out.”

“An easy way out,” God echoes, nodding. “Thank you for being honest with me.” This is a standard phrase therapists use when clients drop a verbal bomb about their homicidal, suicidal, malicious, vindictive, hopeless, violent urges and fantasies. It buys a little time.

But God doesn’t need to buy time. I’m suspicious. God already knows I’m as afraid of dying as the next person, but I’m deeply ambivalent about staying alive. Fighting for every last breath soaks up resources, drains loved ones, involves a fair amount of suffering, and has the same outcome. What’s a few more days or even years if they are filled with pain, struggle, and hardship? It may look heroic, but there are many ways to define heroic. Leaving willingly, gracefully, at the right time might be another definition. I glance sideways at God.

God glances back. “How’s that bucket list coming?” she asks, with a mischievous smile. “I know you’re inclined toward rescuing and saving, but don’t put the world, or yourself, on the list. You can save neither.”

“God, darling,” I say. “I don’t even know what ‘save’ means. And how’s your bucket list coming along?”

“Thanks for asking, sweetie,” God says. “But let’s talk about why you want to know.” This is another classic therapy maneuver; turn the question back on the client. But then God reaches over, takes a drink of my coffee, and salutes herself in one of my many mirrors. This is not a classic therapy move. Too invasive. Too intimate. Impulsively, I look straight at God, grab her cup, and take a swig. The coffee is hot, dark, and bitter. I want to spit it out, but God bows her head, palms together, touching her lips. I have the distinct impression she’s cheering me on, so I swallow and raise the cup. We look in the mirror together. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

Lies

Sometimes, like right now, mocking, sarcastic words get in my head, and I write them down and imagine going viral. But then I hit delete hoping to be left wordless and alone. Words are the vehicle of vanity, triviality, and lies. There has to be something true beyond words.

In daydreams, I stare steadily into the eyes of the current Russian dictator, our own recent dictator-in-waiting, Brazil’s and Britain’s buffoons; I imagine having the depth of soul to crack their stony defenses and open some tiny pocket of humanity and compassion inside them. Their grotesque, malignant egos melt away and flocks of bluebirds and goldfinches are freed from within, winging their way to freedom. Cue: Julie Andrews singing “The Hills are Alive…”

O.K., I’ll admit it. What I actually imagine is vultures pecking their eyes out while I hold them frozen in place with a magic spell. Then I smash their skulls on rocks. I… There’s a disturbance to my left. I hold up my hand. “Not now,” I say, turning to God, who always stops by midsentence. “I’m on a confessional roll.”

“You certainly are,” God says, as she multiplies and divides. She’s heavy with child. With children. She’s heavy with hope and courage. She’s heavy with bombs. She’s swallowed the detonators; the bombs will explode, and today, like every single day on this blessed earth, she will die a hundred thousand deaths. And in this fragmented, impossible way, God, too, will go viral.

“Come with me,” God says. I back up, shaking my head.

“Where?” I ask. “Nirvana? The life I deserve next? The cross? The front lines? The back alleys?  The grave?”

“Yes,” God says. “Come.”

I take a reluctant step. Then another. It’s rocky terrain. I stumble. I get up and examine my scrapes and bruises. I hurry toward the fleeting purple robe in my pointy shoes. The bridge across the icy stream has been destroyed. I try to leap across, but I slip and fall in. I think I’ve sprained my ankle. I’m wet, cold, hungry, disabled, lost, afraid, and angry. I’m a refugee, hunted prey, weakened by age and a soft life. “Stop!” I shout at God. “You’ve made your point.”

“I did?” God asks, in disbelief. “I wasn’t aware I had a point.”

“Not funny,” I say, rubbing my frozen hands together.

“Agreed,” God says. “Not funny.”

Outsourcing

People who insist on naming God after themselves irritate me. Same goes for people who display religious icons, symbols, carvings, or statues. Wise writers far before my time called these “graven images” (not a compliment) and indicated Yahweh (not their real name) isn’t thrilled with the idea of being portrayed in such limited, distorted ways. We invent names we can pronounce and create images we can use for signaling, comfort, or torture. The names and images come with suggested donations and membership guarantees. The in-crowd will be safe. The out-crowd will go to hell.

For convenience, I call this massive, creative, omnipotent bundle of compassion, wisdom, and potentiality “God.” Short, crisp, easy to spell. But wildly inaccurate, right God?

God slides into view, a pile of sticks, a taste of tea, an imagined joke, a yoga stretch, safety. An act of kindness, vivid forest green washing through a dream that would otherwise be drab. God isn’t shy or without preferences, but neither is God insistent. I wait.

“Ocean,” God says. “Egg of magpie. Eye of newt. Opposable thumbs. Lace. Elephants. Lilies. Those who are heavy-laden. Microscope, telescope, telltale stains on a well-worn soul. Yellow. Something gleaming on the far horizon. Mercy. Hallucinations, hallelujahs, hallways leading nowhere. Everywhere.”

“Stop!” I yell. “What in the world do you mean?

God laughs. “Not sure what you mean by “world.” Remember that just beyond your definitions, a little part of me is waiting for you. But no hurry. We have forever.”

“Blue,” I said. “Warm quilts, icy beer. Old friends. Leg of lamb, bark of dog, things that frighten me. Death. Justice. Slow arrivals. Snow falling innocent and pure. The brave song of a single child. A cracked bell ringing.” I stop and wink. “Am I getting the hang of it?”

God loves to play, but sometimes the rules of the game are hazy. The fire crackles and converts the dead apple tree to gas and soot. The temperature rises. A tiny fraction of feather escapes from a small tear in my down vest and floats on currents invisible to my naked eye. It appears to defy gravity in favor of other forces as it floats here and there. Or maybe it isn’t defiance. Maybe it’s a complex expression of faith: gravity, warm air, cool air, breath, the earth circling a star we’ve named the sun.

The wisp of feather finally settles, God fades, and I know that someday I will be free and undefined. But for now, I make up rules that suit me and name things that actually have no name.

The Spiritually Disemboweled

Today, I am rightfully and terribly sad because nice white adults who would rather live in a democracy are being fired upon, herded, overtaken, terrorized, and killed by a vicious dictator. Likely by the time you read this, the death toll will have reached 1000—maybe far more. And in that same timespan, 30,000 children (mostly not white) will have died of starvation or malnutrition in so-called developing countries. And the poisoning of the planet will have accelerated. Those tanks are not powered by the sun.

My own children are grown and well-fed. At least for now, I live in a democratic republic and can freely express myself. My little corner of the globe is stunningly beautiful. On some days, I am grudgingly grateful. But often, my good fortune makes me want to spiritually disembowel myself. The dentist assures me my teeth look fine, but I think she’s lying. Deep in the night, I imagine I am gnashing my molars down to the gum.

In times like these, God often asks, “Do you want to believe in me at all anymore?” And I say, “Well, yes and no. Mostly no.” And God nods understandingly and pats my head. I yank her arthritic hand away. “Save it for someone who needs it,” I say. And she says okay and sits there on the orange couch waiting for me to realize I am among those who need it. I consider the utter impossibility of believing in anything and the emptiness of believing in nothing, and I grab the vacuum and run it around the living room like a madwoman. This is funny because I hate vacuuming. God grins and plugs her ears. I’ve always suspected she hates vacuuming, too, but with God it’s hard to say. The invention of the vacuum was supposedly a step toward liberation for enslaved womenkind.

I drive the vacuum straight toward God. She is easily pulled in, traveling down the hose in a lump. For a moment, I feel victorious but then, horrified and alone. I turn the vacuum on myself and down I go, right into the dusty arms of the ever-present, ever-waiting God. “Help!” I shout. “I can’t breathe.”

“Stay calm,” God says and hands me an N95. I mask up. Masking is an act of love. What does it mean to love my neighbor? What does it mean to love myself? What does it mean to love creation? It is a dirty, sad, imperfect process–often thwarted or violently opposed–but the alternatives are so much worse.

Naked in the End

You will be happy to know the accent wall is now midnight blue, the ladder-backed chair rescued from the dump, lime green, gold, maroon, and yellow, and though my life has not gotten noticeably better, I used recycled paint, so there are five fewer dented cans awaiting resurrection in the basement. They are empty. I’m happy. I’m drinking the leftover Malbec wine for breakfast, but I would prefer dark beer. We must all make sacrifices.

Among the things set free by the storm last night are five rotten cottonwoods, one majestic willow, and twenty-six irrigation pipes rattled loose from their line of duty and sent tumbling dangerously through the darkened sky. Those of us left behind have accepted the fact that we will not be able to save the planet by ourselves. The wind has agreed to help but at great cost. Millions of unwilling children have lined up along the shoreline hoping for food. The tide will rise and take them. Their elders will follow. Millions of other species have unwittingly signed on for extinction, simply by being themselves—ugly, simple, and in the way.

For a while, we will fight to save the pandas, the owls, and the wealthy; the beautiful and those who make us laugh. I, for one, will write words infused with angry sympathy for those born into suffering, born with few options, those who then hate, radicalize, and destroy. The war games continue.

I kick at the shins of God, trying to wake them up. This cannot be the Original Intention. I am a foolish Cinderella. They are a flimsy Prince Charming. I am Jack. They are the Giant. I plant magic beans. They are the purveyors of binder weed and quack grass. I install solar panels. They are the sun and patchy morning fog. They are the good witch, the man behind the curtain, the placebo effect. They are a modest chemical reaction, and we are atoms splitting, cloaked in a thick shawl we’ve drawn over our shoulders, thinking it was pure merino wool. It is not. It is denial. I have considered freezing to death instead of protecting myself with lethal and selfish lies. When souls stand naked in the end, truth will be the only shelter. Not power. Not possessions. Not beauty. Not brilliance. Truth is always grounded in humility, compassion, and sacrifice. Sometimes, to practice, I wear clothes thinned to threads by others and endure the brutally cold light for as long as I can.