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 Dog in the Fight

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God and I don’t usually get into theological discussions, but recent claims on Facebook—that we shouldn’t worry because GOD IS IN CONTROL—forced me to bring this up. “Are humans autonomous?” I asked God.

“Yes,” God answered, looking a little wary. “It’s a package deal. Comes with consciousness.”

“So when people say ‘You, Oh Most Amazing, Most Loving, Most Majestic Creator, YOU are in control’…”

God interrupted. “They’re wrong. You know I’m the biggest forgiver you could ever hope to meet, but I’m not a control freak. I made it possible for you to love each other and tend the earth responsibly. To save things and make things better. That’s my contribution.”

“So, um, you’re not going to do it for us? You’re not going to intervene? Even if we’re sinking like bags of rocks? Acting worse than pigs? Lying, torturing and starving each other?”

“Right. But you always have the option to save yourselves.”

“How?”

God looked impatient. Maybe even a little angry. “Haven’t I made this painfully clear?”

“You mean like, um, love our neighbors? Give our lives for our enemies? Share? Tell the truth? Ten Commandments. Golden Rule. All that?” I was stammering.

“Exactly. Do you watch the news at all? Do you think, even for a minute, I don’t LOVE the Rohingya? That I’m not starving with the 870 million who are hungry right now? Do you think it was ME who built nuclear bombs? You think I profit from gun sales? C’mon.”

I looked away. God ranted on. “You can’t be serious. Me, in control? What have you been smoking?”

I think God thought this was funny. I wasn’t laughing. God continued. “Okay, I’ll admit, I hold out hope that you’ll do my bidding, but I realize it’s damn hard to give all that you have to the poor, forgive everyone, stop building walls, stop amassing riches, stop hoarding weapons, and just hang out with me in the cloud of unknowing, unselfish, unbearable love.”

“But, God, aren’t you on my side?” I whined. This was my co-author, my sometimes gentle friend, cutting me no slack.

“No,” God said in a big voice. “No. No sides. Your football games? Your stunningly stupid, shortsighted selfishness? Your empire-building? Your big winners and dead losers? No. I have no dogs in your fights. No. NONE.”

God took a deep breath which led to a coughing fit due to the smoky air. I held still.

After some throat-clearing, God went on. “I do have one dog, though. She’s a rescue mutt. I call her Gracie. Look at those eyes.” God’s voice was playful and gruff. I looked. Huge brown eyes, liquid with love. Her fur was long and scruffy, her tail, wagging. God continued. “She’s not a fighter though. She’s a lover, aren’t you girl?” Gracie licked God’s hand. God leaned down and went nose to nose, soaking up some doggy kisses.

I waited. God’s head stayed down, but Gracie offered her paw, and we shook. She licked my hand. I threw a stick, she brought it back. I threw it again, she brought it back. One more time, she brought it back. And then they were gone and I was alone, but Gracie had left me a pile of sticks. Enough to last a lifetime.

New Shoes

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This morning, on the Stillwater, smoke from both the fires of Canada and the fires of hell invade my body and soul with every shallow in-breath, and I endure the artist at work–yesterday’s ashes glazing the face of granite into something too terrible to touch, too beautiful to behold.

Not long ago, I began to pack for yet another autumn transition. I picked the last of the purslane-choked green beans, pulled the onions, undid the hoses, and with sickening ambivalence, bought poison to deal with mice. Traps or poison? I’m not a rodent, but I’d rather be poisoned than trapped. If we had a decent God, we wouldn’t have to use our crude, projected empathy to make these wrenching decisions. Maybe we’d even feed the mice and marvel at the prodigious quantities of seashell pink offspring. Or maybe in the spirit of the grand circle of life, we’d learn to eat said offspring. A delicacy. Except for their tiny spasmodic appendages, curled baby mice do bear a remarkable resemblance to shrimp. Wait. That wouldn’t solve the problem.

Eat or be eaten. Poison or be poisoned. By and large, the weeds won this year. And now, forests are being blazed out of existence, flood waters gorge on land, and lives are lost. I sit in unearned comfort, grimly examining the karmic consequences of nonaction, trying to goad my flesh into movement, my mind into comprehension. It feels useless. Why bother? Such is my mood today.

Yesterday was a different story. I had new running shoes, and there’d been rain. And God, I know you don’t like it when I imply you’ve engaged in miracles for my sake, but it seemed you’d reduced the gravity along the highway where my stride was effortless and I bounded along like a deer, legs spring-loaded, heart lifted and extraordinarily light.

“It was the shoes,” God says.

“I don’t believe you,” I say.

And God laughs. I can barely see the big, sharp teeth through the haze, but I can hear the riotous sound of a happy God.

“No, really,” I say in my loudest voice. “I don’t believe you.”

“I know,” God says. “Next time, run in old shoes with rocks in your pocket.”

“Fine,” I say. “That’s just what I’ll do.”

“And what will you prove, darling?” God asks, suddenly all innocent and interested.

“Nothing,” I shout. “I’ll prove nothing. There’s nothing mortals can prove. You shift the odds, change the playing field, turn down the volume, distort the light. We’re mice in an endless maze. Where are you, God? That’s what I want to know. Where are you?”

“Sheesh, oh ye of little vision. Calm down. You cannot look anywhere I’m not. I’m the maze and the fire, the weeds and the water, the new shoes and the rocks. And by the way, you got a good deal on those Sauconys, but I liked the yellow Asics pretty well too.”

 

Alarm

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God isn’t usually an alarmist. But it’s not like things have been easy lately. We were jogging yesterday, or rather, I was jogging and God was flitting along, reminding me to hydrate. God doesn’t need to hydrate. I like to think God doesn’t need anything, but I know this isn’t true.

“You know I’m the First Author, don’t you?” God asked as we crested over a small rise in the road.

I nodded curtly. I don’t like to talk when I’m running. Oxygen is an issue.

God continued. “I’m wondering about how much to edit. You know your little world is in tough shape, right?” I snorted. I hate it when God sounds worried and states the obvious. It throws me off. I get panicky.

“I love this place,” God continued, sad and pensive. “I’m proud of the way it’s woven together. A fine and delicate piece of work. And I’m intrigued with the little nubbins of consciousness and compassion appearing in your species. I’ve waited a long time for that.”

God was ruining my run. I stepped into the borrow pit to let a large RV roar by, glared at God, and said, “Like you said, you’re First Author. Write a different story line.” I was panting. “If you like this place so much, save it. If you think we’re a cool species, speed up our evolution.”

God sat down on a pile of sandstone. I paused, running in place, trying to keep my heart rate up.

“I’m doing what I can,” she said. “But I’m stumped. My compassion is yours for the taking. I’ve published ads, made special two-for-one offers, pointed out the folly of greed…I’m not sure what keeps going wrong. Maybe I should have designed the reproductive systems differently. If three of you were required…Or maybe, if I ramped up what seems obvious…your mortality–the brief time you have here to make any difference. But that just seems to frighten you. And you don’t just resort to violence, you cultivate it.” God was mumbling and scratching her head, lost in thought. “…this is a species willing to kill each other for money or sport…willing to let children starve…ripping up their own little planet, poisoning it…” Her face was grim.

I considered sitting down beside God to try and be of help, but I needed to get home, and it was hot. I started moving again. To be honest, I ran as fast as I could manage. But one thing I know; God always catches up. One minute, you think you’ve left God in the dust. The next minute, you are the dust, and the earth is turning on an unfamiliar axis. It is then you realize the way forward is the way back, and those who are beloved lie utterly defenseless, waiting. Not moving at all.

 

 

 

Strong-armed women

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Strong-armed women driving big red trucks inspire me, as does the defiance of hollyhocks. Marathoners over 65. The ways of wrens and eagles, aspen leaves whispering, greenery, brownery, the long gray rain, the blaze of sun returning, my pen moving sluggishly across cheap white paper, reluctant to lay down ink that later, I will have to obliterate. These are the things giving me life today. Are they going to be enough?

“No,” God says, joining my thoughts reluctantly. “No.”

The shovel handle, rotting. The soil, moist. Blight, mold, mildew, rust, dominant plants crowding out the tender herbs and delicate flowers. Voracious insects, mealy worms, centipedes. Lichen, moss, quack grass, locusts. Hoards and hoards of greedy, lying locus. Forces of destruction. God, is this what you intended? I don’t speak. I just think. God speaks.

“In your way of understanding, no. But yes. In my way, yes.”

But I want a different way of understanding. I never meant to be human. I meant to be a planet, at the very least. Or a savior. I meant to have a bigger meaning. I meant to be someone who could translate the songs the stars sing to the infants who need to know the words.

God interrupts. “They don’t need to know the words. The melody is their sustenance. Soon enough, they’ll find their words. And yes. It’s not especially easy being who you are.”

Damn straight. Damn right. Damn ugly. I would fix it all if I could. I can’t. I’m going out there right now and poison something, or someone. With soap, I’ll destroy the tender nest of bugs in my kale. With vinegar, that binder weed will back off. With cayenne, I’ll stop the march of ants toward my pantry, or at least, they’ll veer off the trail. I’ll recycle, compost, push back, and do battle–and in the end, it won’t matter. But I’ll laugh it off, won’t I God? You and me, laughing it off. Moving on. Living to fight or run another day, until, well. Until I give up, or there are no more days. Then what, God? Then what?

“Dancing is an option. The neutrinos have begun a dance it will take you centuries to learn. You’ll love it. It involves a lot of spinning. You like being a little dizzy, right?”

“No,” I said. “Not since the pregnancies.”

Oh, yeah,” God said. “I remember now. That will change. Again.”

“Change,” I said. “Revert? Evolve? Entropy? Complexity? End times, end games—you don’t really understand my perspective, do you God?”

“Not really,” God admitted. “But that’s okay. I get a real kick out of trying.”

 

Awakenings

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Every morning I wake up before I want to, and the pleading begins. First, I plead with my mind to quit racing, bladder to back off, and feet to stop tingling. I beg the other distractions to have mercy and cease the agitation so I can go back to sleep. Usually, this does not work, so I turn my focus outward and fervently repeat the word please, but I’m not pleading with my mind or body anymore. I am pleading with the Other—the Out-there, the Collective, the Wonderment, the Real. I call her God. You don’t have to. Neither of us minds much about names.

Usually, I don’t feel pathetic, nor particularly hopeful. I don’t feel desperate (very often), nor do I feel humble. Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be anyone there, and the pleading is a thin tributary flowing into the great river of human longing. Other times, God wakes with me, sits on the edge of the bed, takes in the pleading, and we commiserate.

And once in a while, she is awake before me. This morning, there she was, in the darkest corner, staring across the room, breathing all the available air. I woke in her gaze, fighting to get enough oxygen to begin the day. She emanated a largeness, an earthy, expansive decomposition.

“Could you shrink a little?” I asked. “You’re suffocating me. And you need a bath or something.”

God blushed and pulled some of herself back in. “I guess I overshot a little,” she said. “I got distracted waiting for you to wake up.” She didn’t say it in a mean way, but I rolled over and turned my face to the wall in shame.

Here was God, sitting around, getting bigger, sweaty, and out of breath waiting for me to wake up. I’ve been trying to wake up my whole life. There are so damn many temptations, such a draw to falsehoods. There are mental dead-ends, alleys filled with trash, and a certain alluring homelessness that both invites and frightens me.

“God,” I mumbled from under the covers., still facing away. But I stopped. Words are magic, but they are secondary to the primal wish for connection and comprehension. They’re slippery and can be used for nefarious purposes. I didn’t want to hide or obfuscate or excuse myself. I just wanted…I just wanted…I rolled back over to face God.

“Please,” I said. “Please.” Like most mornings, it was all I had. What I was longing for wasn’t clear. Who I am wasn’t clear. What might turn the tide wasn’t clear. The way back wasn’t clear, and the way forward wasn’t either. God was painfully present. Listening. I felt a rising sense of panic.

God opened her mouth. Oh no, I thought. Oh no. Here it comes. What was I thinking? I’m not ready. I’m stupid. I won’t understand whatever she says. I’m old. I’m too weak to do whatever she is going to say. I’m selfish. I didn’t dare plug my ears, but I considered it. The pause may have been brief, or may have lasted centuries. It was long enough for our eyes to lock.

“If you add thank you,” God said gently, “you’ll feel a little better.” Then she settled in beside me, releasing more air than I could ever breathe. I hid under her downy wings and slept the sleep of the holy. The innocent. The dead. This is the only place it is safe to be awake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feeding birds

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“Hey, God,” I said. “Should I feed the birds?”

“Say what?” God said, puzzled.

“Should I feed the birds? I mean like buy bird seed, put it in a feeder, fill it up, and feed them?”

“That is entirely up to you,” God said, gleaming bright yellow from the feathers of a goldfinch, scarlet from the blackbird wings. I remembered God’s hysterical laughter at the mating dance of the sandhill crane earlier this spring. Why would she not endorse the idea of bird-feeders? She obviously gets a kick out of birds.

“But should I?” I asked again. “I can afford bird feed. I could feed them and give them a place to splash around, too.”

“You sure could,” God said. “I’ve been doing it for eons. They like thistle seed. And they’re not that picky about where they splash around. They’re like little kids; they love puddles.”

“I don’t like thorns,” I said, frowning. “And I don’t like puddles. Mosquito breeding grounds.”

“Yes,” God said. “You aren’t a bird. Birds see things differently. You’re not a child anymore, either.”

“Sheesh,” I said. “I know that. Why do you have to point out the obvious instead of answering me directly?” This was becoming one of those exasperating conversations where the tables were soon to turn. I could feel it in my bones.

Sure enough, God said, “Excellent question. Why do I have to point out the obvious over and over? Why do I have to bend over backwards, forwards, sideways, up, down, and under? Why do I have to repeat myself ad infinitum? Why do you choose angst over joy? Why do you fear your mortality? Why do you hide in your greed? Why don’t you sing or dance or play more often?”

“I knew you’d do this to me. I ask a simple question, and you turn into a bird, and then get all defensive and blame me for not…”

“Not what?” God said, putting a big, oil-stained hand on my shoulder. The fingernails were atrocious. It was workaday God. “Not what?” he repeated.

I was stymied. I felt blamed and guilty but I couldn’t put my finger on why.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’m sad, God. And angry. It’s making me dull-witted.”

God laughed. “Basically, just remember this: It’s all chicken feed and beautiful brown eggs. Get out there and love the most obnoxious people you can find. Grab my hand and listen to their hatefulness with interest and compassion. Smile beatifically.”

It was my turn to say, “Say what?”

And we left it at that. I had lists to make. Weeds to pull. A self to feel sorry for, and a country and world to feel sickened by. And God? Who knows? Probably busy forgiving someone. That’s my best guess.