Senses

Smell is our oldest sense. Collectively, humans can detect billions of different odors. This has played a central role in our evolution, leading to such literary declarations as Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. The sense of smell has made headlines recently because a microscopic organism has been infecting human brains, disabling the senses of smell and taste: a virus not to be trifled with. But then, evil is rarely to be trifled with, right God?

No answer. The silence isn’t holy. But some days, I just keep talking.

And about this notion of evil, God. Who’s evil? What is it? As you know, I don’t like dust settling on things again and again or ashes as a final destination. I like fresh sheets, crisp salad, and good news. Call me shallow, but that’s the way it is, God. I would prefer to be comfortable, adored, young, well-fed, and smart. And whatever deprives me of what I want, well, let’s call that evil, shall we?

My one-way chat takes a nasty turn as the sun intensifies through the window and I see myself reflected on my computer screen in all my dismal glory. “No wonder God is busy elsewhere,” I say to my image in a mean voice. “You’re all the things you dread.” I consider the procedures and surgeries available to make me seem younger, more adorable, smarter. This breaks my fall. My distended ego deflates, and I give myself a smile that naturally lifts the wrinkles.

See, God? Here I am, smiling. All done judging. C’mon by.

I sit. I force myself to say prayers of lovingkindness for the twisted senator, the mouth-breathing fools on the airplanes, lazy neighbors, unkind people, even those who torture, deprive, and dehumanize. I give thanks for my senses, even though I can smell the blood of the disgusting humans who are destroying the planet. Oh, I wish I were the giant.

This last thought finally rouses The Presence. Holy Words, like sleek black animals, invade my brain. “You can’t eat your way to heaven,” they say in a low growl. “You can’t smell your way to salvation. You can’t see the face of God, and you can’t force your way in.” The Words collect around The Presence, and The Presence turns to me, taking the shape of a very old friend.

“The thing that shines in the broken moment, the shelter of translucent skin, these are lessons. Very little of who you are or what you do is to your credit or entirely your fault. Regardless, you will never be the giant. For this, be grateful. Go listen to holiday music. Inhale cinnamon and vanilla.”

“But that seems so…” I pause.

“Shallow?” asks my Very Old Friend. “Simple?”

“Yeah,” I nod. “It’s like giving up. Surrendering.”

“Yes,” my Very Old Friend says. “Much harder than it seems. But you can do it.  I’ll help.”

You Can’t Make Me

God and I are listening to Bonnie Raitt on Youtube. “I can’t make you love me if you don’t,” she croons, her voice resigned, gentle. The lyrics were inspired by an article about a man who’d shot up his girlfriend’s car. During sentencing, the judge asked the offender if he’d learned anything. He replied, “Yes, I did, Your Honor. You can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.”

“Well, that’s true,” God says. “But don’t extrapolate. She’s singing about eros–an attraction that’s sensuous, artistic, and spontaneous.” God gave me a chummy wink. “It may not have been that wise, but I put eros slightly out of your direct control. And I’ll admit, I get a kick out of watching eros make fools of you all occasionally.”

My mind drifts to some of my youthful escapades that may or may not have been fueled by eros. I keep silent. God laughs.

“I hid it in the genes; biology and all that,” God says, but quickly adds, “I also gave you a modicum of willpower and common sense. You can channel eros in some very nice ways.” God smiles. “It’s a source of energy.”

“Yeah,” I say. My mind drifts to the notion of loving my enemies; definitely not a source of energy.

“Ah,” God says. “Let me clear that up for you. It’s a problem with language. I never command eros. It’s there or it isn’t. My first–and actually only–commandment is this: Have compassion. Choose self-sacrifice. Act for the common good. I don’t just hope you love each other in this sense of love. It’s a full-on mandate.” God pushes back in the recliner, watching me squirm.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she says. And I say, “You already know what I’m thinking, But fine, I’ll say it. I’m thinking about mandates. I don’t like seatbelts. They make me itch and feel claustrophobic. There are mandates I hate.”

“Yup,” God says. “I know that.”

“But on the other hand, I detest second-hand smoke, and drunk drivers terrify me.”

“I know that, too.”

The song continues. “Morning will come, and I’ll do what’s right. Just give me ‘til then to give up this fight.”  The longing in her voice, the beautiful, ultimately loving surrender always chokes me up. Such a heart-wrenching choice.

“Now, about those seatbelts,” God says. “You realize that in a crash, your untethered body becomes a bludgeon, right? It’s a mandate for the common good, not your comfort.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I say. “That’s why I wear the damn things.”

But sometimes, I finish my half-beer in the car when I’m not driving. I haven’t shot up any vehicles, but I admit I still have some work to do.

“Oh, most of you have quite a bit of work to do,” God says. “And not to rush you, but like the song says, morning will come.”

Sphincters and Other Lesser Parts of the World

In the process of letting go (a euphemism for aging) I’ve grown more conversant with my inner workings. Organs, nerves, limbs, skin, circulatory systems, hairline–we’ve all befriended each other. For instance, on a recent road trip miles from anywhere, my bladder urged me to pull over. I squatted (a humble pose if there ever was one) and waved cheerfully at the driver of the pick-up that happened by. She waved back. A warm calm spread throughout my body as my bladder and I drove on home.

Some of us think of creation as parts of The Body. Others are more exclusive about who’s in and who’s out; what’s to be honored, who’s to be enslaved. These are ego-based pretendings, wrong-headed derivations. In the Oneness, every molecule has a voice. For instance, when stubbed, the oft-overlooked third toe suddenly takes center stage.

This is the kind of pondering that almost always guarantees a visit from God. Sure enough. She’s arrived on the west wind with a flood-inducing chinook on her tail.

“Why, hello there, God,” I say. “What a nice surprise. C’mon in.” My automatic hospitality reminds me of a poem my grandmother had on her kitchen wall:

            Guest, you are welcome here. Be at your ease.

            Get up when you’re ready. Go to bed when you please.

            We’re happy to share with you, such as we’ve got,

            The leaks in the roof and the soup in the pot.

            You don’t have to thank us or laugh at our jokes.

            Sit deep and come often. You’re one of the folks.

I memorized the rhyme, but I didn’t know what it meant to sit deep, and I didn’t like people partaking of my grandmother’s kindness. I wanted her all to myself. Now, I want God all to myself. I want singular adoration, endless comfort, and permission to be at my ease forever without the hassles of caring for others.

“Sorry,” God says. “Doesn’t work that way.” We gaze at the fire. She strokes her chin. “If you had a choice, which part of The Body would you be?”

I chew my thumb and think. Brain, eyes, ears all come to mind, but they’re too obvious. “Bladder,” I say. “I’d be the mop bucket.”

God laughs. “You know you’d have to cooperate with the sphincter, right?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ve known that for a very long time.” I raise my right hand. “I do hereby solemnly swear to love and honor the sphincters of the world. My own and others.”

I expect God to chuckle, but instead, I realize we are sitting deep; God and me. And I see that nothing functions without cooperation and mutual respect, internally or out there in the nasty, brutal, fractured Oneness we live within. I know I’m not alone, but sometimes I wish I were.

Holiday Lights

Recently, my friend brushed so close to death that her skin became luminescent, and the fingers on her left hand grew longer and more graceful. I noticed this when she lifted that hand to show me how she’d surrendered. I suspect she was either bidding the others in the room farewell or she was offering her hand and the rest of herself to the Larger. She doesn’t know. But at that moment, a Boundless Tangibility of Peace overcame the reluctance in her lungs, and she lived. It was that close. I like looking at her. She’s always had an easy laugh and a generous ear, but now she glows.

Three years ago, I decorated random pieces of yard art with solar-powered holiday lights, and they’ve flickered ever since, faithfully announcing the arrival of a thousand nightfalls. Of course, I know that eventually the lights will go out and my friend will stop glowing, but the pressing question is this: What are we supposed to do in the meantime? How should we greet each sunrise when we find ourselves alive? How do we handle the twinkling blue as daylight fades? My friend isn’t sure. Neither am I. We think it has something to do with acceptance. Authenticity. Doing our best.

But who knows? My Co-author does, but it’s tough to get a straight answer.

“Now honey-pie, y’know that ain’t true.” God has shown up. He protests in an awful imitation of a Southern drawl. “Y’all make this a bigger puzzle than it needs to be. I’ve been damn straight on this since forever. Love, give, and rejoice until you cannot do it anymore. Then fold.”

“You make it sound easy, but it’s not,” I say, feeling both insolent and amused.

“Want me to spell it out, darlin’?” God asks, long arms crossed over galactic chest, looking impish.

“Yeah,” I say. “Spell it out.”

“Love.” God says as if he’s in a spelling bee. “L. O. V. E.”

“Very funny,” I say.

“Then laugh,” God says. “Laugh your greedy, frightened, malignant, time-limited ass off.”

“I don’t mean funny like that,” I counter. “I mean you aren’t much help. I can spell ‘love’ all by myself.”

“Oh, really?” God asks and waits.

“Really,” I say firmly. But I’m lying. I’ll be asking for help within minutes. With apologies to Robert Frost, I’m often a lost child in the confusing woods when it comes to love.

“Now, ain’t that the Truth?” The Boundless Tangibility of Peace says to the Larger.

“For certain,” The Larger says. “Them woods is lovely, dark, and deep. But they ain’t no place for a chubby-cheeked babe.”

This cracks us up and we laugh our fool heads off. Yes, God is Love, the Big Breast in the Sky, the Larger, the Smaller, the Woods, the Clay, the Life, the Death. And yes, God is the Way Home. But until then, there’s work to do, and we all know how it’s spelled.

Thanksgiving

            “Sometimes, your species is hard for me,” God said, looking a little haggard.

            “I know,” I nodded. “I don’t like people that well either. But it’s hard to write them off entirely.”

            “Yeah,” God agreed. “I often wonder what makes me hang in there.” She paused. I waited. “It might be the gratitude,” she said finally. “Humans are capable of saying thanks in a way that warms my heart. Nothing quite like it.”

            “Gratitude?” I asked. “You like that better than when they apologize?”

            God chuckled. Her corporealness was starting to fray. “Are you a worthy representative of all humanity?” she asked in an impish voice, a luminescent grin taking over what was left of her face.

            “No.” I shook my head emphatically. This was a trick question.

            The grin expanded. “Oh, no worries. You’ll do. Tell me how you feel when you’ve messed up and need to say you’re sorry.”

            I grimace. Confession of sins? Facing faults and shortcomings? Asking forgiveness? Not easy. Not fun.  

            “You already know this,” I said, giving God a look. “I hate failing and being wrong. I do not like needing to apologize.” I looked down at my hands and stopped talking, but in my mind, I went further. It’s complicated. I have my pride. Once in a while, I get stubborn and lie to myself or other people. And I blame others and feel sorry for myself…but I didn’t want to mention that to God.

            The eyes of God looked upon my soul. “My point, exactly,” she said. “People often make the same mistakes and sometimes, show up again, woeful and defeated. Or they get defensive and act like they’re not wrong after all. I accept apologies all day long, but I don’t enjoy the process, and I don’t think people do either.”

            God looked at her own hands, cracked a thousand arthritic knuckles, and stood into the stratosphere of herself. She wrapped the cloak of unknowability around her shoulders and set the sky on fire. “So, that’s why I like gratitude better than penance,” she concluded.

            “But how do you know it’s sincere?” I asked, but there would be no answer. The room, the land, the cities, the earth—everything had become one big party.

            God was center stage, doing an Irish jig. Darlings and demons cavorted across galactic dance floors, and all creation clapped and stomped, keeping the intricate beat alive. “Gratitude’s an attitude. Fake it ‘til you make it,” they sang. I couldn’t see who was playing the frenetic fiddle, but I did not want to join this ridiculous reverie. I needed some space, and God knew it. The scene receded and God’s merciful arms surrounded me. Only me.

            “Go in peace,” she said, dismissing me to my quiet place.

            “Thank you,” I whispered.

            “You’re welcome,” God said. We both meant it.

High Wind Warning

As dawn arrived, the wind picked up and all manner of things wired or weighted down began banging and clanging in protest, especially the artistic frying pan hanging next to the rusty tire chains. Everything not secured took flight. It was the last I saw of the brown tarp, the ordinary clothes I’d hung to dry, and the light pink clouds that make mornings easier. I ran outside and grabbed at vague shapes flying by, but it was futile. I looked up. The tempest had peeled the sky raw, and the gaping blue of infinity was in sharp relief. I wasn’t ready for the existential vertigo that washed over me. My lack of innocence was frightening.

“God!” I yelled from the middle of nowhere. “I could use some help here!” The voracious wind emptied my lungs and flung my words down the valley. I took cover in the low-slung fort I’d built as a child, amazed it was still there. On hands and knees, I inched deep into the soft, undisturbed darkness and found a place to hide.

This is where a Godness discovered me, hours later. I was thirsty and ready to surrender. The Godness began to sing against the merciless gusts in a tone lower than sound. Gradually, the wind died down, and we emerged to survey the damage. Fallen trees, stripped branches, shed antlers, lost feathers, disturbed water, dashed dreams—a landscape bereft of permanence. Neither God nor the earth engage in murderous self-defense. I could see why the promise of heaven makes so little sense. It’s only the promise of hell that matters.

I tried to whisper the names of God etched in the grounded patterns of dust and ash, but my lips were gone. Holy breath, warm and moist on my neck, made me long for my mother, or a simpler God, or something easier than gale-force wind. Gently, the Godness wrapped me in fragmented light and told me I would always be beautiful. I shook my head and blushed the blood red color of my favorite hollyhock.

Hollyhocks are biennials. The seeds from the parent plants sprout and gather force the first year and bloom madly the next. They can last for generations without any human assistance. The hope they inspire seems delicate. But it’s not.

The Long Gray Bird

The long gray bird is back with her disconnected head and graceful wing. She defines space that would otherwise be undefined, and she does so without much deliberation. She could have easily been compost or firewood which would have been fine. But for now, she’s an expression of God and grace, small nails, and a blank wall.

Last night on the news, I saw a soldier in combat fatigues: helmet, rifle, boots. He was sitting vacant-faced on the steps of a bombed-out building, the dark child beside him barely clad. Neither of them will ever find their way to my easy world. In fact, they may not even make it home.

I sleep, and in my dream, I welcome them. They are God. To the Soldier I say, “God, darling. You are beautiful and deadly. I wish you were obsolete.” To the Child I say, “Get up and run. It’s not safe here.” The Soldier looks me in the eye and hands me his rifle. “You cannot define the space around me,” he says. “I have to do that myself.” He lifts the Child into his arms with a certain finality and cushions her head safe against his chest.

I don’t know where they’re going or if they’ll return. I wave and try my best to smile, but the departure leaves me bereft, without purpose or direction.

“God,” I whisper, awake and facing morning, “You know I’d like to extend my reach; do things that make me feel important and complete. I’d like to turn the tide of hate into an ocean of love. I’d like to make the fear go away.”

The God of early morning is often soft, responsive to my naïve and narcissistic longings. She is patient. Unafraid. She knows that in any given moment, I could pull her off the wall, snap her neck, and put her in the woodstove, thus ending the torment of hope. She laughs like smoke. She is the residue of a well-lived life, the stubble in the field. She is sapling and ash, beginning and end, warrior and rose.

“I know,” the God of early morning whispers back. I hear the murmur of wings as the gray bird takes flight. “I am of your doing, and you of mine.” I nod, and again I wave and smile. But this time, no grief. I’m at peace with the leavings. Joyful, even. There is little doubt that in my next dream, I will learn to fly.

The Flower Show

Photo of Roxy Paine’s original work

It’s morning in New York City. I’m leaning against a pile of fluffy white pillows, gazing out the window, seven flights up, with a warm dark beer balanced on my belly. Across the narrow street, I see bricks, mortar, and shiny ventilation systems. I’m trying to quell my claustrophobia. Thank God for the beer. It wasn’t easy to find. “I guess anything worth anything is not easy to find, right?” I say to my faithful co-author.

“You tell me,” God says, her feet wrapped in the hotel’s luxurious comforter.

“Okay, I will,” I say. “For instance, you. You’re not easy to find.” But I catch myself. “No. Wait. Not true. You’re actually too easy to find. You smell terrible, you speak other languages, you have needs. It’s what the hell to do about you that’s hard to find. The Tao. The long and winding road. The way…it’s so foggy, steep, and dangerous. It’s slick. Nasty. And brutally beautiful.”

God leans over. Takes a sip of my beer. Rearranges her pillows, and sighs. “You are so right,” she says. “I do smell terrible. Not everyone is pretty, you know. Cut me some slack. Not everyone is perfect.”

I nod, but I don’t apologize. God continues. “Some of my favorite islands are going under. I make you this nice planet. You rip it to shreds. I make you all so similar, like family. You rip each other to shreds. Over money. Pride. Jobs.” She says ‘jobs’ with a sneer, pauses, and finishes with, “And you think I stink? Ha!”

I throw my arm over God’s familiar shoulder. “Yeah, you’re right. This is old terrain between us, isn’t it? Alive or dead, we mortals stink up the place. I’m glad you stink, too.”

God laughs. Suddenly, there are flowers. Funeral flowers. Wedding flowers. Light pink. Baby blue. Lilacs, clematis, columbine. And I am young, winning the junior division of the local flower show with flowers my grandmother grew. Then, I am old and all I grow are sunflowers, hollyhocks, and poppies. It seems we are doomed to seek comfort, solace, and the easy, deadly way.

“No, you’re not,” God says. “I’ve made sure you have reasonable options.”

I settle back in the pillows, take one more sip of beer, cork it, look straight at the New York God beside me, and shrug. God knows I won that flower show because my only opponent was particularly ugly and inarticulate. The sad truth is that her flowers were spectacular. Nearly perfect. And she grew them herself. My grandmother was proud anyway. I tried to tell myself, ‘A win is a win.’

But I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. God will linger at the finish line, waiting fondly for the losers until there’s no such thing anymore. And all the former losers will be busy, planting and protecting, sacrificing and celebrating, honoring and adoring everything that blooms.

The Dance

Even though Google responds with greater enthusiasm and speed than God, I still badger God with questions, which is surprising because God’s answers are slow, few, and redundant. In contrast, Google is generous–instantly spewing out answers that sometimes number into the millions. Google requires internet access. God does not. God requires honesty. Google does not.

“You sound pretty sure of yourself there, cowgirl,” God says. “But I don’t require honesty. I’m foolproof. And if you were being honest, you’d admit that.”

I smile. This will be a good day. It rained in the night, but now a stiff breeze is taking back the precious moisture. God is clowning around in ways only a real creator can. There’s a certain music in the wind. Even though it’s unsettling, I usually like the slippery slopes and exhilarating spins around the dance floor with this intimate, unknowable God.

Daylight arrives without permission, but the comfort of night will be back. Darkness brings both rest and terror, but the clarity of day will return. The one-armed woman and the one-eyed man make fun of my shallow notions of beauty and perfection. I don’t want to love them or the image in the mirror. In fact, I don’t want to love anything.

“Now you’re being honest,” God says, panting. He’s taken a turn with every single possible partner. The music is relentless and has grown frenetic. I’m trying to enjoy the show, but multitudes are amassing, and I’m a little bit afraid.

“One more for the road?” God asks as he offers me his elbow. I consider Googling some excuses. How does one refuse God? Right now, I want to be a wallflower, one-dimensional and oblivious. How can I gracefully decline to dance? But this time, God is faster than Google. In the voices of all who’ve suffered, past and present, in the voices of those soon to suffer in this vast imperfect world, God answers gently, without malice. “You cannot.”

So, I accept the offer and do my best, but I tromp on God’s toes a couple times. He laughs and tosses me into high the air, and everything I’ve never needed blows away. I land lightly. I was right. This is going to be a good day.

Off-Gassing

I closed doors, opened windows, turned on fans, and lit the first fire in my new wood cookstove this morning so it could begin off-gassing. Then I took my latest rock project outside to spray with clear lacquer. The smell of that stuff can ruin your day if not your lungs. Some things necessarily involve the management of toxicity. In fact, as I think about it, there’s likely no avoiding toxicity as part of a larger process. Anywhere. Ever.

“You sure about that?” God asked.

“No,” I said, “but I bet you have an opinion.”

That cracked God up. “Ha! Me? An opinion? Did you forget I’m God? I don’t have opinions.” She said this with disdain.

I felt like doing a little off-gassing myself at this point. “Fine,” I said. “But back to toxicity. It’s like evil, right? Somehow, it’s part of the point. Rotten things smell terrible. Poop is disgusting. It’s the essential tug-of-war.”

“Not exactly.” God looked bored. “What’re you wearing for Halloween?” she asked. “I’m thinking witch, but I also love going as Quasimodo. That hump and giant mole really get to people. And it’s easier than dragging along a broom.”

I stared at God and then out the window. I wondered how the fire was doing. I wondered if the stones were dry. I wondered if I would ever get a straight answer from God.

“You won’t get many,” God said. “But I’m consistent. There’s that.”

“Like ‘love your enemies’ and all those other impossibilities?” I said, in a surly voice. “You mean how you’re the definition of compassion while horrid things happen all the time, right? You mean how deception is wrong, no matter what?”

God smiled, nodded, and lifted with a thousand wings. God drifted like smoke. God surfaced, a blue whale in a vast sea. I was enfolded in something beyond myself. It was nothingness, but I wasn’t worried. Something about me was holding strong. The basics. The dialectics.

“Don’t forget Lucifer,” God whispered and rubbed what felt like my head. “I love that little pipsqueak.”

“I’ve always known that,” I whispered back. “I’ll never forget.” I was making promises I had no way of keeping, but it seemed to please God anyway.

“Set the intention,” said Blue Whale before diving to the ocean floor. “Then hang on.”

So that’s what I’m doing. Intention is set and I’m hanging on. I will minimize my toxicity as best I can. But my reach exceeds my grasp, as I suspect it always will—and that damn new stove is back-drafting.