Babies in Cages

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“Hey God,” I said, barely awake enough to keep my balance while getting breakfast together. It had been a long night, peppered with images of clergy trying to reclaim the name of Jesus and the faces of friends, offended or cheering, and images of crying children. Political pawns—all of us—political pawns in a game best named Greed. I’m a bit player, but I play. We all play.

“This thing about the name of Jesus, or the name of anyone for that matter. I’ve never quite understood it,” I said, spilling a little coffee on myself. I always fill the cup too full.

“Yeah, I know,” God said. “It’s confusing. Is a rose still a rose if you call it fruit-of-thorn-bush?”

I wanted to say yes, but I wasn’t sure. Essence versus label. Image versus substance. Symbol versus reality. At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow? The name? I don’t think so.

“You know I’m not a formula, right?” God asked, trying to be of help. “And you know I’ve tried my darnedest to urge humans along, to reduce the fear, to increase the joy, right? I’ve tried to make it safe to love. Safe to kneel.”

I nodded. Then an awful realization crept into my soul. God wasn’t talking about the usual kind of safety. The good ones suffer and die. The children of God don’t get a pass, no matter how they were conceived or received—named or framed. Having arrived at the evolutionary pinnacle of being able to see ourselves as made in the image of God means nothing in the realm of power, money, influence, safety, or ease of life. It only means we have a couple of choices the rest of creation does not appear to have: We can choose self-sacrifice. We can choose to defy hatred. We can give our lives for our friends. We can love our neighbors. And we can expect to get a whole lot of abuse while we do these things. Some of us will lose a great deal in the process. Some of us will die.

I sat on the couch, ashamed of my comfort. Agitated by urges to drive to the border and get in a cage. Unwillingly complacent. Lost.

“Stop it,” God said, reading my mind as usual. “You aren’t lost. Just a little frozen.”

“Fine, then. Thaw me out,” I said. I may have even crossed my arms in a kind of angsty defiance.

“Blow torch or balmy breeze?” God asked, smirking a little.

There are no words to describe the sound I made. I lost it. I lunged at God, hoping to land a sucker punch. “YOU’RE IMPOSSIBLE,” I yelled as I flailed and howled.

“That’s it, baby,” God said. “That’s the spirit. Take it and run. No gesture is wasted. Do what you can. Go where you must. I’ll be there. And remember–that Jesus thing has a happy ending. Most likely, you will too.”

An Email to God

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Yesterday, I got this email:

Dear Honest God,

I’m not sure how to reach you, so I’m sending this through your friend Rita.

I woke up at 3-something in the morning talking to you. Which is pretty odd since I don’t believe in you, and besides, you are Rita’s, not mine. I was talking with you about being a 72 year old woman – closer to my death than to my birth, although perhaps I am also reborn every day. You, of course, are ageless, so maybe you can’t relate. But if that’s true, what does “older than god” mean?

I have this fear which surfaces occasionally – especially at 3-am-ish, of getting old, losing my memory and my energy / strength. Losing my relevance in the world. Not that I was ever any big deal. My kids with their work and their marriages, kids and jobs and friends – well, I’m not that important any more. Side lined a bit.

My Buddhist brain chants placidly ” We are of a nature to grown old.. We are of a nature to die…” but another louder, more demanding part of my brain (at that hour) is saying “nononono” The image is of being on a big river, some big rocks ahead and then a big waterfall. And I can hear the roar of the falls….

I waited a bit, but then decided I was going to have to step in, so I wrote back:

 Dear Nancy,

So far, God has refused to email me. She’s an awful co-author—whimsical, contradictory, self-important, demanding, and sometimes frightening. She shows up on her own schedule, pesters me at all the wrong times, and provides few answers. But on the positive side, she doesn’t seem to care if anyone believes in her. She’s not needy in that way. And though humans judge “on her behalf”, I haven’t found a judgmental bone in her ephemeral body. Just infinite compassion for the human condition—a condition which includes an evolutionary leap into consciousness that we have trouble handling—thus that 3:00 AM torment of mortality, meaninglessness, and impending death.

I find comfort in the fact that I didn’t choose to be born. Likely, leaving the womb was terrifying, cataclysmic–something to resist. But I was born. From what I can gather, life’s a gift—mine to squander, live selfishly, cruelly, and in fear, or I can live  compassionately, generously, joyously…I can prolong it, or end it, or see what happens next. I can welcome the day or hide from it. And since I try to be as honest as God, I admit I do, or consider doing, all of the above. All of the above.

I used to think I wasn’t afraid to die, but I am. I would welcome eternal youth or at least less arthritis. But though we have choices, they are limited. I try to be at peace with aspects of being alive that I cannot fix or change—even if they totally suck. But one of my torments is this: could I fix more? Am I doing enough? This is where God comes in handy. I remind her I am NOT her, and therefore, it is her job to show me what to do—point me to a calling or two. Or not. I keep my ears tuned to loving frequencies and my eyes as open as I can.

Yes. Big bruising boulders. A roaring waterfalls. Our lives, a river. We drift along, occupying increasingly battered bodies and steadily declining minds. Sometimes, I like to maneuver to the shallow spots and dance. Or float on my back, find the sky, and dream. The raspberry harvest looks to be abundant this year.

Hope this helps.

Love,

Rita

The Gospel of Stone

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On Nova last night, I learned about the role rocks may have played in bringing forth life on our planet. I’ve always loved rocks. Apparently, God is comfortable being a humble, inscrutable mineral, waiting to see what his own inner turmoil might bring forth. God knows how to have fun in ways we mortals can’t even begin to imagine.

But watching Nova wasn’t fun for me. My species is complex and by all appearances, quite destructive. I am ashamed and befuddled.

“Sit with that,” God says. So I sit. And sit. The paint dries, the hands on the clock move, the clouds drift by, the grass grows, the flowers bloom, and the molecular miracle that I am begins to vibrate in harmony with the universe—a stringed instrument being plucked in defiant hope by God, my buddy, my nemesis, my imaginary friend.

The thread that initially stitched me together is intended to dissolve. I know this. I accept this. But before I unravel into my component parts, I want to matter.

“What a noble thing to say,” God says. His tone is a bit mocking, but then he shifts. “And, to some extent, I believe you. So shed the shame. Fend off the fear. Pedal your bike around and do something nice.”

“But I’m too sad,” I say. “Somebody has to save this planet. Somebody has to stop the suffering and the injustice and the greed.”

“Um, darling, if you were supposed to do that, I’m sure you would,” God says. Now he’s being facetious. I don’t like it.

“Yes, I would,” I say, and mentally give God a swift kick in the shin.

“Ow,” God says. Then he starts laughing. His belly jiggles and expands. The lava flows and the stones slowly harden, preparing again for their holy containment. I am filled with envy. God is filled with joy. “C’mon, sweet cheeks,” God says. “Lighten up. You’re one of my beloved little specks of nothingness. Isn’t that enough?”

“Nope,” I say. “Sorry. I know it should be, but it isn’t. Could I be a little more?”

No answer. While I was speaking, God had turned to agate. Sapphire. Onyx. Salt. Granite. I stroke the varied surfaces, take a lick of salt, and watch the limited sun scatter the light of purple quartz and fire blue diamond. I put six smooth stones in my pocket as the river roars beside me. Transitions are inevitable. I am always a little afraid, but sometimes, on a clear day, I can laugh myself to pieces.

Eat Fat, Get Nicer

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“God,” I said. “What do you think of that eat-fat-get-skinny diet?” God looked at me like I’d lost the few marbles I have left. It wasn’t the best conversation starter but it was on my mind. Who better than the architect of this whole ragged universe to answer this? I know it’s a first-world question, but that’s where I live.

God sat quietly with her hands folded over her large, shapely belly. I ran my hands over the skin on my chest, which was all bumpy from having a few moles frozen off yesterday. Vanity is painful and expensive, and trying to stay alive forever is even worse. Omega 3, a key ingredient of this magical new way to eat, is a pricey substance for land lubbers. But it might save me from heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and post-nasal drip.

And if I manage all that, I want nice skin, right? As the dermatologist zapped the moles with liquid nitrogen, I mentioned that my lip had mysteriously swollen up yesterday. She pulled it down and said, “Looks like an allergic reaction. You need to see an allergist right away. Another reaction could kill you.”

Often, I find I don’t love the medical profession.

“Not a bad way to die,” I said. I wasn’t in the mood for further testing.

“What? Asphyxiation?” Her eyes narrowed as she wrote a referral I knew I’d throw away.

“Yeah,” I said. She was scornful. I was defiant. “It takes less than a minute to lose consciousness.”

I don’t have to see her for another year. But God’s sitting right here, messing with my thoughts, which are swirling like the snow outside. “It’s so much bigger than that,” she said. “So much bigger.”

Oh, yeah, I thought. That’s so helpful. Like I don’t know the planet will die some billions of years from now, and the sun will burn out, and the cosmos will birth new stars, new planets. There’ll be new steps to the dance. But in the meantime, do I eat sardines to prolong my short stay?

“Yes and no,” God answered. “If you eat them so you can be kinder longer, yes, eat away. But if you eat them out of fear, no. If you eat them with gratitude, yes. If you eat them like a life-hoarder, no.  She paused. I gulped. The air was crackling

She continued. “I cannot stress this enough, honey. The fiber you add to your diet matters little, but the fiber you are made of is screaming for a life well-lived. Transform your greed to charity, your anxiety to bravery. Transform your rage to action. Transform those little lies and excuses to outrageous honesty. Use your intellect to the max. Stroke each day like it’s a purring kitten or a happy dog. You’ll know when you should die.”

I looked at her in despair. I wasn’t sure I knew when I should do anything. She could sense my fear. My deep doubts and flailing good intentions. She rubbed my back and stoked the fire as the hills disappeared in the storm.

 

Pieces

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Stirring a small white cup of thick gruel with arthritic brown hands, God glanced up at me and smiled. She was missing some teeth and her dark oily hair was mostly tucked under a tattered scarf. I knew she was going to offer me that cup, and I didn’t want to take it. Usually, God’s offers are nicer than that, and I still refuse them on a regular basis.

My eyes began to water from the strong spices in the air. I was certain whatever was in that cup would sear my throat and leave me begging for a crust of bread to calm the fire. Birds of prey circled overhead. The ominous light of pre-dawn settled on the hills as I tried to find a path that would take me safely away from this insistent old woman. I knew there was no such path, but still, I searched. What I found was a large troop of frantic fools that looked a lot like me. A pool of living mirrors, selfish and afraid.

“Well, shit,” I said. I rarely use that word, but there it was. I’d ambushed myself. With no pretense of gratitude, I took the cup from her steady hand and gulped down the terrifying liquid. It burned its way to my center, thick as blood.

Those who love me came with bread, broken and ready. I ate. Another harsh day had arrived, but I was nourished. I roared. I punched the air. I ran my hot red psyche into the nearest wall at full speed and shattered myself into jagged little pieces. Pretty little pieces. Useful little pieces. That’s the best I have to offer. Useful little pieces. And usually, by noon or so, I’m okay with that.

After the shooting

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In the morning, I say “Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God,” and hold my hands on my heart and push inward. But I am not praying. God is very busy helping people who are still alive find ways to stay that way for a while. To cope. I don’t want to interrupt.

But suddenly, here she is, eating muffins, admiring my recent artwork.

“What in the world are you doing?” I ask. “Get back to the places you’re needed. I’m okay.”

“I know,” God said. “It’s the muffins. They’re delicious. And I love how you arranged those little rocks. I remember when that heart-shaped one surfaced eons ago. Good eyes.”

God settles into the outdated bent-wood rocking chair and helps herself to another muffin. I give her the last of my cold brew coffee, and sit. I’ve been a therapist long enough to know this is one of those times it’s better to wait.

Sure enough, the tears begin. I should’ve realized how bruised she’d be, and how drained. We throw a whole lot of shit at God. And we throw it hard and mean. I let her cry a while, offering my ugly collection of hankies, confessing my part in it all, and silently begging her to pull it together.

After a bit, she lifts her head. “I guess you’ve noticed some trends that don’t bode well for you all,” she says, sighing. “Violence isn’t new, just deadlier. And ignorance has gotten so damn popular. Almost no one tries to think anymore. And vengeful hatred is all the rage.”

I nod, miserable. God rocks rhythmically, sipping coffee, wiping her nose, staring out the window. The leaves have outdone themselves this year. Such brilliant declarations of transition and death. Soon, they’ll fall and become the elements they once were. Another generation will unfurl in the spring, lime green and innocent. This, of course, assumes intact roots. Food and water. Light. I close my eyes and imagine myself vivid magenta, gleaming gold, letting go. A transitory entity that prays and listens. A tattered shelter. A friend of God’s.

The chair is empty. The muffins, gone. And I cannot find the heart-shaped rock. I hope she took it with her.

The Dangers of the News

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God grabbed me by the throat this morning as I listened to the news. I squirmed and glared. The news ended, but God held on. Garrison Keillor read a poem by Sharon Olds in his soothing voice on my cheap clock radio.

“Let go,” I yelled. “Get thee behind me.” I was pretty sure that would loosen God’s hold, if only for a moment. Long enough for me to run somewhere, anywhere, up out of this basement, away from the imperfect walls surrounding me and the awful reports of the hateful world.

It didn’t work. The grip tightened. It was hard to speak, but I managed to say “I didn’t do it. It’s not my fault. And I can’t fix it.” Then I passed out.

When I came to, my head was in God’s lap. He was sitting on our frayed hide-a-bed loveseat, stroking my hair. I felt nauseated. I held perfectly still, afraid I was going to throw up on God. He used his bandana to wipe cold sweat from my forehead.

“You’re small,” he said. “And confused and tired.”

He leaned down and I gave up, slipping body and soul into those burning eyes, so dark there was no visible pupil. Pure obsidian. Black is not a color. It’s what happens when all colors have been absorbed. You can let go so completely you have nothing left to be.

When the florescent light flickered on, and the colors returned, God was gone. I turned my head from side to side, sat up, and held myself for a minute. This was not okay. God was not playing fair.

“Get back here,” I said. My voice was scratchy and there were bruises on my neck. “You can’t get away with this, God.”

“Unfortunately, I can,” God said in a voice older than any I’ve ever heard. “I’m tired, too. But I’m not confused or mortal. If you ask nicely, I’ll show you how to be kind today. But that’s all I’ve got.”

“Okay,” I agreed warily. “But could I be wise, too? And powerful? And funny?”

“Nope,” God said. “Try kind, and see where that gets you.”

God faded. I sat and faced myself. I didn’t want to be kind. I wanted to be nasty, resentful, and discontent. I wanted to blame, demand, and focus on everything that’s all messed up. Kind, huh? That damn black-eyed trickster.

I covered my neck in a blue silk scarf and set sail on the day. Kind. Well, at least I had a focus to distract myself from the fatal fears just under the surface of every evil act. Mine or theirs. I knew the relentless news would dog my steps. But I also knew the deep black place would hold me again if I need it to.

 

Brittle

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“God,” I said. “Blogging with you is like trying to shovel water out of a fast moving river.” God said nothing. This is one of God’s favorite responses. Even though I’m used to it, I don’t like it.

My motivation wanes and I assess the strength of my arms, the shape of the morning, the level of courage left after the terrors of the night. It isn’t easy to let go and make contact with something that vibrates like God. My brittle convictions are always in danger of breaking. My perch is precarious and I don’t look down for very long.

“Down is the wrong direction,” God says, the voice rising from the frost on the windows.

This time, I give God a taste of her own medicine. I say nothing.

“Down is the wrong direction, and anyway, the only real escape is breakage. Don’t be afraid. I work best with colorful fragments, contrite hearts, and brave, belligerent foolishness. I’m more of an abstract artist. I like mixed media. Exotic combinations.”

Even though I intended to stay silent, I couldn’t stop myself. “You are one twisted dude, God,” I said. I thought I was angry, but when God started laughing and dancing and throwing small stones in the air, I melted. I let go. I fell, and broke.

“Look what you did,” I screamed, terrified of all the jagged edges, the false starts, the weakened beliefs. Utter incoherence where once there’d been an idea. An explainable self, shattered.

“Yes,” God said. “Look what I did.”

Landing

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In 40 minutes, I will land. We will land. The degrees of separation will fluctuate wildly while my internal Geiger counter recalibrates. Then all will settle, and I’ll make educated guesses about the radiance of God’s face and the relative dangers of the mundane.

No doubt the landing will be turbulent because in Mexico City, God looked bored and restless. Security singled me out, emptied my bags, patted me down. The apologetic guard had thin pink lips. She was extraordinarily short and efficient. God chuckled before boarding the plane like royalty, dressed in pilot’s regalia.

At 30,000 feet, I am beyond redemption, but then everything is. The question is less about redemption–more about restoration, which apparently, will be a real bitch. There’s nothing subtle about restoration. It extends beyond the absurd and tragic, earth scorched and drenched, bones burned clean. The lovely molds and mildew will recede only after, somehow, it’s over, and this particular crisis is removed from the cross and buried.

Explanations sit stoically beside me, overweight and ugly. Back in Mexico, they stare out the windows of the purple bus, flutter in the hands of children selling trinkets in the rain.

The seat belt sign is illuminated. Items in the overhead bins have shifted. Visibility is limited by smoke and tears. But we will be landing shortly. This is terrible. And perfect.

Tweets

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God tweeted “Not white” and followed that with “Not male.”  Followers gasped and tweeted “Not God.” God laughed and tweeted “Not moon.” And then “Not American,” using gleeful hashtags and emojis. This triggered such a massive unfollowing, Twitter managers pitied God, and granted a stay of execution.

“People.” God shook her massive head as we sat with our feet dangling in the water. “Do you think there’ll come a day when they stop squeezing me into their image?”

“Doubt it,” I said. “I do it all the time, and I know better. You’re impossibly big, and we’ve discovered how vast, how tiny….Um, let’s just say the Known Universe isn’t even known very well. And yes, we did appear to be evolving nicely there for a while, but the wheels have come off. Looks like the retrenchment will be hell to pay.”

God sighed. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“Okay,” I said. “Do you know how foolish I feel continuing to hope compassion will overcome hatred?”

“Yup,” God said.

“Or that gratitude will outstrip greed?

“Yup,” God said.

“Well, how about this: I like to imagine you’re going to swoop in and get even with all the bad guys—utterly destroying them. Bam. Humans are really into revenge. Including me. We all hope you are too.”

“I knew that,” God said. “And I’m not.”

I gave up. I wasn’t really trying. We were just making small talk. By the river. On an innocent day. Time enveloped us and came to an end. I slept, body on stone, as the sky thickened, turning the colors of a Navajo blanket. God lifted me in fatherly arms, and I snuggled into that hollow spot where shoulder meets neck. The essential scent of God filled my lungs. I roused myself enough to invite the entire world—no, the entire cosmos–to come sleep there with me. Protected. Somewhere beyond fear or reason.

And God made room. Just in case.