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.”

 

The Way of All Flesh

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“Um, God,” I said, “I’ve been meaning to tell you…”

I saw no way to ease into this topic, so I gulped and blurted. “I intend to end my life if I think it’s time.” My bravado belied my queasy stomach, but I don’t know why I bother to put on airs like that. God sees right through me.

“I know,” she said, almost tenderly. “And that’s an adaptive way to deal with your fear and sadness. A mental escape hatch.”

“So you don’t mind?” I asked. “You don’t care if people kill themselves?”

“Depends,” God said. “I care enormously about your suffering. I suffer with you.”

“I’m not suffering right now,” I said, ever the defensive, egocentric one.

“Then why are we having this conversation?” God asked.

My words tumbled out. “Because of the enormous pressure people feel to stay alive. To defend life at all costs. To survive. To frame death as the final defeat. They pin it on your will. Like when people finally die, it’s ‘God’s will’, or when they live, it’s ‘God’s will’. But then, somehow, it’s our job to keep inventing ways to prolong our lives, and no matter what, we eventually die, and sometimes, slowly, painfully, and without any brain left.”

God gazed out the window. “Scary,” she finally said, mostly to herself. “Expecting conscious mortals to make compassionate decisions…sometimes I wonder if I’m asking too much.”

“Compassionate decisions?” I echoed, thinking, “Could she possibly mean that choosing death, ending a life, could be a compassionate decision?”

The Eternal Allness, the Beginning and the End, the Ever-present Force, the Planner, Sustainer, Granter, Architect, Experimenter, Lover, Truster, Sufferer, Giver, Taker, Saver, Waster—my side-kick and nemesis—smiled like a patient third grade teacher.

“Sobering, isn’t it?” she said. “But yes. You already consciously end millions of lives without compassion, out of greed, neglect, or fear. You execute. And you honor those who give their lives for others. You end the suffering of your beloved pets. You can’t excuse yourself from these contradictions, nor can you legislate them away. Here it is: Sometimes, in the larger scheme of things, choosing to end a life, even your own, is choosing Life.”

“Stop!” I said. I’d lost my bearings, overwhelmed with the wrenching images and conflicts. The dialectics of existence. Ending suffering. Murdering thousands. Politics and greed that result in starvation. The human capacity to grow food; invent medications; toy with life; dole out death. The human longing for perpetual youth. Slippery slopes and higher visions.

“No worries,” God said. “I’ll stop. But I’m not going anywhere.” She grew galaxy-big and atomic-small. She swam in a sea of amniotic fluid, danced a bone-rattling dance, died in the arms of a weeping father, and pulled the sky apart so I could see through myself. She wrapped the individually-beating cells of my heart around her little finger and licked the rings of Saturn like they were strands of taffy. She was being light and heavy, silly and serious. She was kaleidoscopically steady as she pulled the arms of morning around me. Not my morning—her morning.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she repeated, stroking my forehead. “And in a way you cannot possibly understand right now, neither are you.”

The Great Walk-Away

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Often, I imagine escaping my life, especially around 5:00 AM, when the cumulative bleakness of existence asserts itself with a vengeance. But it’s not only then. I consider disappearing at random times. I notice places I could hide and stay hidden. I think about how far the money in my wallet or the credit limit on my American Express would get me. Away. There’s something alluring about away. Anonymity. Starting over. A grand redo.

“Go for it,” God always says at these times. “Sounds like fun.” And I snort. This is the parent helping the angry child pack graham crackers, milk, and pajamas to run away from home. I don’t appreciate this sarcastic bluff-calling.

“If I go for it, you’re not invited,” I say this morning—a morning made uneasy by my birth, 65 years ago. A morning simmering in the image of autumn—the season of denial. A morning of tallying up, falling short, seeing dimly in a chipped mirror. “You’re absolutely not invited,” I repeat, my mood down and nasty.

“Are you talking to me?” God asks.

“Who the fuck else would I be talking to?” I snap, glad to have a chance to land a blow.

God didn’t flinch or back away. She wasn’t even defensive.

“Yourself,” she says.

….You’d think this would’ve put me over the edge. You’d think maybe I’d shove God up the stairs, or step on God like a bug, or swear some more. You’d think I’d cross my arms, back away, drink more beer, kick, protest, whine, or come apart. But you’d be wrong.

“You’re right, you’re right,” I say, grabbing God, doing an awkward jig. “I’m not invited. Totally not invited.” I could see my not-self on the distant horizon. “Who do you think I’ll be when I’ve left myself behind?” I ask.

“I’ve met her,” God says. “She’s hard to describe, but she’s beautiful. In fact, you could mistake the two of us for sisters.”

What??? Who in their right mind would want God for a sister? For instance, today, she’s imposingly tall and black, with luscious breasts, large enough to feed an entire world of refugees. “You’re so funny,” I say. “And you’re still not invited.”

“I know,” God says with a sigh. “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”

I relent. “Okay, fine. You’re a little bit invited. But only as much as I can handle.

“Awesome,” God says, huge red lips framing an alarmingly seductive smile. “That’ll be just fine.”

The Burden of Autonomy

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God and I are organizing my mom’s memorial. God keeps writing rhyming poems and trite drivel. This surprises me. One might think God would be a more free verse sort of entity.

“Why are you doing that?” I ask. Rude, perhaps, but this kind of writing seems so constricted and sentimental.

“What’s an uplifting word that rhymes with death?” God asks, chewing on a pencil, ignoring my question.

The word comes out unbidden. “Breath,” I say with a frown.

And then I cry. For three days and three nights, her body breathed on. Brain stem at work, they said. So we waited, and read to her, and sat by her, and combed her hair, and rolled her body gently to and fro. We talked, watched football, played music, and sat. Sat with life as it fought to hold on, sat with death as it waited with us.

She would not have wanted to die that way, but then, she didn’t want to die at all. She wasn’t one to give up. Ever. Her favorite saying was, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Obviously, she wasn’t Buddhist.

“God,” I say. “Why did you keep her alive those last days?”

“I didn’t,” God says, surprised. “She did. You did.”

I shake my head but I know it’s true. God looks on while we ignore basic quality of life issues, and invent ever more life-prolonging machines, medicines, and treatments, and provide them selectively to those with resources. God looks on while we starve and murder, deny help, and blame the poor for their conditions. God looks on while some people rake in millions of dollars as providers of interventions, medications, or insurances, and others go bankrupt trying to save a loved one.

If God fell from scaffolding and broke up his body, would Worker’s Comp fight to minimize the costs of his rehabilitation? Would we deny him Medicaid? If God slipped on the marble floor she was mopping…if God got cancer as a child…if God…

God interrupts. “I did not invent dialysis, chemo, or the electric chair. You did. I don’t set bones, prescribe blood pressure medications, or do CPR. You do. I don’t distribute food, goods, or services—nor do I withhold them. That’s all you.”

“But what about “thy will be done” and all that?” I ask. “Aren’t the fortunate fortunate because of you? Aren’t the rich rich because you blessed them? And the healthy? Isn’t it your will for people to live as long as they possibly can?”

God’s eyes roll and she makes a gagging sound. “No,” she says, steely-eyed. “Absolutely not. I’m sick of being used as an excuse. My will is, frankly, for you all to get a clue. You’re so self-absorbed and short-sighted, I have to repeat myself endlessly. Mercy. Justice. Compassion. Self-sacrifice. Translate those, would you? Your finite lives are your own. You have autonomy. You have choices. Stop blaming me.”

The weight of human prerogative pushes the air from my lungs. I have no reply.

“Breathe,” God says. “Breathe.”

A Farewell to September

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September has begun picking at the clothing summer gave her, refusing to eat, and sighing a lot. There’s little doubt it’s about over. October is waiting in the wings, audacious, pregnant with color, unafraid of snow.

“What’s your favorite month?” I ask God. I say this just to get a little conversation going. I don’t actually care about God’s favorite month, and usually, I hate these kinds of questions.

But I ask because God seems distant today. God is in a very big mood. Bigger than sky or any of the planets in our solar system. Bigger than whatever is beyond what we can see. Big. You might think such a big God wouldn’t have time to contemplate her favorite month, but you’d be wrong. As God and I have gotten better acquainted, certain subtleties of her personality have surfaced. She can be stubborn and compulsively attentive to minutia. She likes chit chat. For someone who created the known and unknown universe, she can seem quite shallow and petulant, although she’s also the ultimate role model for apologies and forgiveness. There’s a steadiness I appreciate, even if some of her ways annoy or confuse me.

“I like them all,” she answered. Her voice was knowing. Patient. “But there’s something intriguing about December in Montana, don’t you think?”

I regretted asking. I could feel some kind of lesson coming on. “Depends on what you mean by intriguing,” I said. “I don’t like snow, or the holidays, or bare branches, or slick roads. If you mean the fight to survive is intriguing, then yeah, I guess.”

God didn’t answer directly. Instead, she blurred herself into the gray ash of a cremated body. The bruised purple of sunrise filtered through the translucent storm that was God. I watched wide-eyed and afraid as she rolled the months into a blanket with an impatient flourish. She grabbed my soul, wrapped me tight in the distorted jumble of seasons, and suddenly, we were on the shores of Hawaii. There, clad in bright strips of rags, she scrubbed out the differences on sharp volcanic rocks, welcoming waves of salt water with the wrinkled solemnity of the ancient ones. Gradually, all beautiful, all dangerous, all vital distinctions gave way and floated out to sea.

“There you go,” she said. “An occasional hurricane, but otherwise, totally placid. Bland. Uniform. Predictable. Safe. Are you happy now?”

I hung my head and said, “No. Not really.”

And then I was alone. September doesn’t need me anymore but I know the perils of October all too well. Before the ground freezes, I will transplant rhubarb and stack the split and fragrant wood high against the coming winter. I’ll warm myself in the crackling circle of fire, and with the few words I have left, I’ll resurrect the seasons, even those that will eventually do me in.

When God Is Old

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God was so old today, I hardly recognized him. Not a vision of loveliness, by any stretch. But should God be lovely? Youthful? Sexy? Yes, in my opinion, that would be nicer. But I didn’t turn away. I gazed on the decrepit body, looked into eyes filmy with cataracts. Tolerated the musty odor. Sank my teeth into the putrid truth of decline, flesh draped loosely on frail bones, a framework coming apart.

“What’re you up to?” I asked with false cheeriness, hoping for a rapid transformation. God can do that—one thing one moment, another the next. In the blink of an eye, God can go from bird to mosquito, river to refugee, pauper to king. But the only blink today was a slow one, as God’s focus landed laboriously on me.

“Hi, stranger,” he said, with a wry smile. That was all it took to transform my feeble friendliness into open hostility. This passive-aggressive, accusatory, guilt-inducing shriveled up mockery of life, insinuating I hadn’t been visiting him enough? Acting as though we’re such good friends, like I should visit every day, like I should move in, like I owed him something? I sat silent, but I fumed inside. How dare he try to prevail on my time? I have a life, you know. Why is he old like this?

But with God, if you think it, you may as well say it. His head dropped to his chest, clearly hurt, maybe even afraid. “Sorry,” he said, drawing into himself even further.

I was stricken and ashamed. God weathers all sorts of rejections, but mine seemed to cause him real pain. “No, I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it. I calmed myself and waited for him to lift his head again. I showed him pictures of the grandchildren and garden. I gave him three small beets, an onion, and a large bouquet of deep green parsley. I reached over and patted his translucent hand. “When will this be over?” I asked, with the little patience I could muster.

He didn’t respond, but I knew the answer. Always. Never. God is a transitional verb, unconstrained. God is a hall of mirrors, a blaze of glory on a far horizon. A voluptuous virgin, a greasy-haired teen. But today and forever, God is an old, old man. None of this is acceptable to my primitive mind. My digital watch constantly flashes an ever-changing hour, but the knobby joints in my fingers still bend. God and I hold hands. He eventually nods off and I am free to go. I step into the slipstream of an apparent day, trying to accept the transitory nature of all things real.