Rope Burn

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Sunrise. To my back, a river. On my left, fire. In front of me, wind bends everything eastward. The earth patiently awaits my arrival. Baby God of the delicate pink is creating a pastel peacefulness I wish I could believe in. But I don’t. I’m afraid of being placated by a tissue-thin God with bad breath—an insipid God badly explained by self-absorbed minions whose first language is greed.

All corporeal beings are caught in the slipstream of creation–salvation of a brutal sort. Translucent realities streak by–sleek greyhounds racing each other for the fun of it. All bets are off, decks stacked, roulette wheels off-kilter. The stakes are so high it takes a very big God to cover them. Very big. The Jubelale isn’t as tasty as last year, and my Christmas pajamas aren’t as warm. I need to pack the car so we can drive off into what appears to be a forward direction.

“It isn’t really forward, is it?” I whisper to God as I open the tailgate. God knows I do not want an answer, and I get none.

“Nothing is all that complicated, is it?” I whisper again, loading the suitcases, still not wanting an answer and still not getting one.

“You’re along for the ride, aren’t you?” My third query. This time, I’m not sure if I want an answer. I can feel God itching to say something so I pause.

“No,” God says in a stern voice neither audible nor pastel. “No, I’m not.” The voice reverberates. Eternal. Ethereal.

My heart breaks. An ugly little part of me shrieks with maniacal laughter, “Told you so, told you so, told you so.”  It does a victory dance, slams the ball in the end zone, beats its chest.

The hands of God applaud. Ugly self does a double-take and hesitates. The prancing is over; a temporary death is near, but God is very gentle.

“Come here,” God says to my ugly self. Ugly self slinks closer. “I know you’re afraid. It’s hard to be insignificant and mortal, but you have to try. Belligerence won’t help. I’ve done what I can, but The Ride cannot be along for the ride.” God turns to the larger me. “I don’t know if this helps, but I’ve been there. I am there. You’ll find your way.”

You’ll find your way—a string of words that slip by like a lariat tied to the saddle horn of a spooked horse. I have no gloves. I debate with myself for a moment, then grab on. The alternatives are far worse than rope burn. Maybe God and I can gentle this horse down. Or maybe I’ll just hold on for dear life–linear, majestic, bruising life. I’ll hold on even though the rope digs channels in my flesh, and at some point I will have to let go.

Baby God is still playing in the sky, now decisively blue. “Merry Christmas,” I shout to the horse, to God, and to my ugly self. I am defiantly exuberant. “Bring it on,” I add. And I mean it.

Sweet Darkness

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For the past two nights, I’ve woken in the unknowable blackness of far past midnight and wrestled with the biochemical truths of the human propensity for bleakness. Who knows why these useless awakenings occur? True, I might be a little more stressed than usual. For the holidays, I’d planned on spending more time hanging around in the spiritual ozone, letting God know my soul was open for business, but instead, I bought a condo. An old one. December is an excellent time to do real estate and pull up disgusting carpet, especially in the higher elevations of the northern hemisphere, where ice and snow add to the romance of trips across town.

“Smart ass,” God says, at my elbow. “Trying to write fancy is no substitute for confession or compassion. And it is certainly no excuse for jilting me.”

“You’re nuts,” I say back, kind of glad God has shown up, if only for an argument. “This isn’t fancy writing, I’m not avoiding confession or compassion, and you are impossible to jilt anyway.”

God waits, patient and large. I wait, less patient, asserting my own puny largeness as best I can. We sit; me, trying to recover from a bad night’s sleep; God, well, who knows what she’s up to? She wraps herself in shadow and begins growing darker and darker. For a while, I watch the disappearing act, detached and calm, even though I realize a black hole is opening up in my living room—the gravitational pull is bending the light into itself and I am dissipating into my imperfections. The only source of light comes from faces around me, lit up with hatred. They glow from the heat of fear, greed, and a steely will to survive at all costs.

“Hold them,” God says, as she offers me a set of icy black hands. “Be gentle,” she adds. I cradle the first vicious face in my beautiful hands, wishing someone could see how incredibly compassionate I was being. The face spits at me. Embers of spit melt holes in whatever it is I am. I hold on, but eventually, my substance goes up in flames. I gag from the smell of singed flesh and the oily residue of false pride.

“That worked out well,” I gasp, as God reconstitutes my being.

“As well as can be expected,” God says. “Would you like to rest?”

I nod and surrender–weak, grateful, and fully known. God shakes the sky free of stars and I crawl down into the sweet, healing darkness where the fires of fear have all gone out, the glare of hatred has no reflecting surface, and fetid wounds inflicted by too much artificial light will be disinfected and stitched shut. This is the place warriors become lovers, where the cool, black hands of God hold the flushed face of the universe until everything dies peacefully into itself.

In my dream, I am young again. Peter, Paul, and Mary are singing. And I want to believe them. We all want to believe them.

 

Followers

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“Hey God, look,” I said, pointing at my email. “We got another follower.” My coauthor feigned deafness and pointed east toward the rising sun.

“What?” I asked. “You want the blinds up?” She nodded. I complied and continued, my voice less certain. “You know we have people who read about our chats, right?” God looked at me. It wasn’t an encouraging look, but I didn’t let up. “We have over a hundred and…”

“So?” God interrupted, drilling directly into my own deeper questions. “And you know there are literally billions of blogs, right? If words were food, there’d be no hunger,” she said with a sigh that I interpreted as judgement.

“Yeah,” I snapped. “And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Dust swirled in the aggressive light streaming into the room–glittering little particles of burned wood, dead skin, pulverized top soil. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Words to words. Ideas to ideas. I wanted to scream and rip my insides out. This can’t be it. This can’t be all.

“It’s not,” God said. “It’s not all. It never is. Get in the old white car and drive. Find a new horizon.”

I teared up. God had called my bluff. “I can’t,” I said, sorrowful. “I just can’t. This is my life. The only one I have. The only one I will ever have. I can’t risk knowing any more than I already know. I’ve arrived too late to save anyone.”

“Of course you have,” God said. “And besides, one of the engine mounts has deteriorate. It’s not entirely safe. But the tires are new. The bread is fresh. And the bodies are broken…” She choked up. “The bodies are so, so broken.”

I rushed over, sorry I’d refused her offer, sorry I knew so little, sorry I was so limited and afraid. The way forward was obscure, but I rallied. “Don’t feel bad, God,” I said, grabbing what I could of her in my arms. “I’ll give it a try. There’s a little over half a tank. Maybe we could see where that takes us, okay?”

God looked surprised and nodded. “Nothing is as it appears,” she said slowly, in her best teacher voice. She held my chin in her hand. “There will be wind this afternoon. You can hide from it, chase it, or get out that dusty kite and fly it.”

I remembered a day at the beach, long ago. My landlubber mother admired the fancy kites and bought some for the grandchildren, but she was too timid to try one herself. I wondered how things might be different had she’d tried.

My reverie was interrupted by fast-approaching thunder. The earth was throbbing, the pulse of God coming up through my bones. I looked up. Hundreds of thousands of beggars were galloping across the horizon, their horses majestic, their tattered clothing flying like flags. They waved and cheered, the sky jagged with silhouettes. They were like ET going home. A stampede of jubilation.

Even though it was very cold, the old white car started right up. God hopped in, rubbing her hands.

I turned and faced her. “Where you headed, stranger?” I asked, hiding my fear behind a pathetic John Wayne accent. God threw back her head and laughed like that was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. This helped. I put the car in gear.

“You should never pick up a hitchhiker,” God said, still chuckling.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Buckle up.”

Motives

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“God,” I said, early one morning this week. “How can you have so many obscure names? So many exotic stories? You’re here and not here. Everywhere. Nowhere. And so far, we humans don’t seem to have evolved enough to grasp much about you. Oh, sure. We say we’re doing things ‘in your name.’ We make things up, fill in the gaps, comfort ourselves with spiritual insurance policies. Do this. Do that. Say these words. Pray this way. Torture this infidel. Crucify that one. Engage in rituals. Give lip service to words. Declare some things to be from you, others not. We make deep divisions to assure ourselves we’re on the right side of the chasm or the winning side of the wall. But we’re not, are we?”

“My, my,” God said. “Too much caffeine?”

I hate when anyone says that to me, but I’ll admit, good coffee does tend to clear the channel from brain to tongue, removing the sludge, organizing random synaptic activities into a perceived coherence I’m quite fond of.

“It’s not caffeine,” I said, with dignity. God gave me a look. “Okay, it is caffeine. But I still want to know.”

“That’s one thing I like about humans,” God said. “Most of you do, at least occasionally, want to know.”

This made me happy. Proud, even. Until God continued. “But what you do with what you think you know–your motives for wanting to know–these things almost always get you in trouble.”

“What d’you  mean?” I asked, deflated.”

“I don’t think I have to answer that,” God answered, not unkindly.

Sometimes when God puts things back on me, I get angry or sad. This time, I just sat with it. And sat with it. And, yes, sat with it. This is a good and brave thing to do.

“One of your names is Science, isn’t it?” I asked, finally.

“Yes, of course,” God said. “It’s one of my given names. It’s a path. And I’m a path. A way of knowing.”

“And you’ve picked up a lot of other names along the way, huh?”

“Mmmm. Yes, I guess. Some more accurate than others. Truth is one of my favorites.”

“When people say they’re doing something in the name of one of your names, how does that make you feel?”

“Motive, baby. Motive,” God said. “Think motive, not label. Remember, my family name, my forever name, my defining name is love. Easily mangled. Not easily grasped. Like you said, not easily grasped.”

With a deep sigh, God turned his back. This frightened me until I realized God has no back. He calmly washed his hands in the fire of the sun, and the harsh light was extinguished. The world grew darker than a womb. It was beautiful. Reality receded into mercy. I was weightless and warm, floating in the amniotic fluid of creation.

I had no mouth, but I managed to ask, “Can I stay here forever?”

“Not yet,” God said, in a voice both sad and loving. “You need to bring yourself back.”

“Why?” I asked as my fragments began to reassemble. But I knew. I knew. Motive, baby. Motive.

 

Emerging From the Night

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Last night my dreams were especially ridiculous and sometimes I was awake. Dead alive awake asleep human mortal disgusted frightened elated alone. These could be hashtags for the night. I take pride in dehydrating myself in the evening so my bladder can’t force me to get up very often. Of course, then I wake up thirsty, but this is a small price to pay in my never-ending quest to fool Mother Nature and stay asleep.

The evening news had the bird bones of Yemeni babies on replay again, so the eyes rolled round and round in their skulls and mine. What is it to me that somewhere thousands of miles away in impossibly dangerous hovels tens of thousands of children have starved to death? Their innocence is unbearable. I hate their parents, their governments, their cultures, their practices, their bones, their eyes, their deaths. I hate it all. I think, “If there was a God, this could not possibly happen.”

“Ah hem.” The God in my living room makes a throat-clearing noise.

“Oh, I know,” I turn, impatient. “There you are. Fat and sassy in my living room. This proves nothing.” Frumpy and gap-toothed, God sits complacent in a housedress on my leather couch.

“What would you give to save a baby?” she asks, unfazed by my dismissiveness.

“Which baby?” I reply.

“My point exactly,” she says.

“No, don’t do that,” I say. “You always get preposterously convoluted like that. I meant it. Which baby? You know damn well I’d risk my life to save a baby in front of me, a baby I knew, a baby I could touch. I’d cut off my arm to feed it. You know that. You wrote it in my genes.”

“Maybe you would,” God agreed. “But the dark ones, out of reach. Not them?”

I ground my teeth, gulped my beer, blew out my breakfast candle. I pushed my eyes deep into my head, rattled the cage of being, and screamed, “They aren’t mine. They aren’t here. They aren’t real.”

God breathed in and absorbed all the air in the room. “But they are mine, I am there, and they are all too real. Your genes are one thing. Your soul’s another.”

I waited for the outbreath. Mercifully it came before I asphyxiated. The outbreath of God filled my lungs before I realized that it is not the kind of air I want to breathe. I want easy air. Nice water. Pretty clothes. I want genetic absolution.

Too late. “What do you want from me?” I asked, filled with self-pity, afraid of the cost.

“Eyes that see, hands that reach, a tongue that speaks the truth,” God said. She patted the spot beside her on the couch. “Come snuggle with me.” I knew it was an invitation filled with peril, but I couldn’t help myself. I’m like that. God’s like that. Against the odds, it appears I’ve been given another day.

When I was a child

Sandstone

When I was a child, I wandered the hills seeking treasure, searching for diamonds– settling for flint or jasper. I also saved sick and abandoned animals or stood watch as life ebbed away and their eyes dulled into death. The funerals were elaborate, with grass-lined cardboard coffins and all sorts of prayers offered up. Magpies, sparrows, kittens, and lambs. I knew God then as a kindly grandfather who, like me, stood watch from the clouds that rested on the shoulders of the nearby foothills. His hills. His feet. His world.

But now, God and I have a more complicated relationship. The magnitude of the cosmos has impressed itself on me, and the minuscule mass of quivering molecules cloaked in my skin are slowing down. People are dying in fires and floods. Children are mangled and hungry. When they wander, they’re not looking for pretty rocks. They’re looking for food.

I raise my fist in God’s face, as if there is a God, as if there is a way. And God flinches. She is traumatized, bleeding, bruised…and regal. She is hungry, angry, scorched, and stubbornly vital. “You can’t scare me,” she says, after regaining her composure. “You can’t scare me.”

But in my heart, I know I can. And I’m sorry. I am so, so, sorry. God, I am so sorry. Universe, I am so sorry.

God puts her knife down. I throw my arms around her. The pettiness of my worries shames me. I promise to do better. To make donations. To live simply. To march. To express my indignation. I will reduce the number of hours I spend hating. Hating. Hating. But I can’t actually do this. I am weak. I have to ask for help.

“Um, God,” I begin. “I have a compost bucket for a heart.”

“I know,” she says. “Compost is good. It breaks down. Rest. Stay warm. Try to love people a little better.”

“I already do that,” I say, disappointed. I was looking for diamonds, not the common stuff of existence.

“Flint and jasper, petrified wood. Quartz, granite, even coal,” God says, and then adds, in a knowing voice, “Sandstone.”

And miraculously, I see it. Sandstone. With lichen growing, just the right colors of orange and green. Yellow and gold. So fragile. So irregular in its jagged perfection. So contrite. Diamonds are cold and hard, slicing deep wounds in the open hand of God. Sandstone yields and crumbles. I am sandstone, soon to become a granular part of this sweet and tiny earth. With help from my broken friend, I can choose the lower places. It makes me a little nervous, but if God can flinch and recover, so can I.

Facial Hair

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God struggles with facial hair just like the rest of us. What does it mean if you don’t pluck your chin hairs? What about those Duck Dynasty-esq beards? What’s the message? And what about a little planet that fails to groom itself? Yes, it appears that earth groomed itself just fine before humans started asserting their appetites, but like it or not, we’ve clumsily joined the ecosystem and the globe now has a steady diet of bad hair days.

One thing I know about the face of God is that the bone structure is birdlike and fragile. It responds to the slightest breeze. And the eyes of God are often fringed with thick, curly lashes. When God blinks, entire galaxies lift and fly through the dark nothingness. On the face of God, unwanted, unmanaged facial hair presents a kind of danger the rest of us can only imagine. It disguises and insulates. It allows us to pretend we don’t know the truth.

This morning, an unshaven God has squeezed himself into one of our sage-colored easy chairs and is rubbing his bristly face, watching me type. “How about you clean this place up a little today?” God asks.

My fingers slow on the keyboard. “What’s the point?” I snap. I meant to sound belligerent, so the grief that wells up surprises me. I look down at my Ninja Turtle pajama bottoms. They’re too big, but I like them. I may wear them all day. My eyes roam around the room because I don’t want to look at God. A day has arrived and it will be spent and gone no matter what I do. The mundane and the horrific. Kindness and cruelty. Hunger and gluttony. Where to begin? Where to end?

Dust dances in the muscular sun streaming in my passive solar windows. God’s voice has the gravelly sound of a man holding back tears. “I know. I often feel the same way. I think it was a good idea to invent time, but sometimes, I’m not so sure. ”

In the distance, the wind is snapping the fabric of an American flag I attached to a fencepost near the highway. I took my signs down yesterday, but the flag stays. The redundancies of human existence often fool me into forgetting linearity. But linearity robs me of the moment. Another weary dialectic to grapple with. I glance at God’s face. His beard seems to have grown a half-inch since I last looked. His eyes are burning orbs, seething with something beyond hope. His fingers drum impatiently on his legs.

“I think I’ll go shave,” he says.

“Okay,” I say. “I guess I’ll get dressed.”