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.

Seven Onions

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Today, I harvested the last seven onions, but the beets and carrots can wait in the dark autumn dirt a while. Frost only makes them sweeter. There’s a chill in the air. I wore my mother’s jacket. She died three days ago, against her will, but in the end, peaceful. That damn body betrayed her–the one she’d shoved into high gear every morning until it gave out. As I signed the papers, I knew she wanted that body burned to ash and flung into the wind–the same wind she knew as well as she knew the neighbors over the years–but I cried anyway.

I am in mourning. God has flitted in and out, respectful but adamant as I rail against her awful ways of doing things. The ways of God. The ways of God. What does that mean?

God is trying to be a soft barrier between me and despair. I prefer despair. God strokes my hair the same way I stroked Mom’s as she lay unconscious, her spirit moving slowly up the other side of the ravine between life and death. I push God’s hand away, angry and ashamed.

“Don’t do that,” I say.

“Okay,” God says. She tears up with me. “I loved her too, you know.”

I nod, reluctant. “I know. But you have a strange way of showing it.”

God nods. “The birds have started migrating,” she says. “I suspect another brutal winter is on the way.” I frown. The unstable shelter of the seasons is little comfort.

I look into the craggy face, the sad eyes, and realize that for God, this might be the hundred-millionth brutal winter. For God, everyone is dying, their bodies transforming, their warm, frightened souls flowing to where they will be known and welcomed. I want to know how. I want to know why. But God’s face is etched with a kind of wisdom I’m not ready for. I look away. Instead, I look to the hills. They are my oldest friends. I trust them. “Take care of her,” I tell them. “Make sure she finds her way.”

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.

Red Box

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God and I are meandering down the alley. I’m on foot. God’s doing a high-wire act to make me laugh. There are crows, evidence of squirrels, and things discarded littering our way. Among the riffraff I find the redeemable. I offer thanks for the empty gift box flashing fancy red from a garbage can, and driftwood, smooth as skin, and seven or eight green apples, all bruised from the fall. I commune with the broken, hoping to catch a direct glimpse of my constant, often invisible, sometimes putrid companion who hides among the worst of it. The ways of God aren’t always pretty, safe, or easy. But I’ve learned to never, ever sanitize God. It causes a crippling loss of the sensations that make us human.

Today, it appears God wants to be silly, but shoes hanging by their laces from electrical lines don’t do much for me. Everything seems stupid. “Hey Goofball,” I venture. “Could you stop clowning around? I don’t want to laugh right now.” Honesty usually works well with the Holy Goofball. She can make her hide thicker than a crocodile’s. But this time, her skin is thin and she’s reactive.

“What makes you think this is for you?” she asks, voice sharp and petulant. “It isn’t always about you.” I look around. Lilac bushes are wilting. Alley weeds transgress, ugly and aggressive. Dust and smoke swirl. And then I notice that a muttering woman with a Safeway shopping cart has turned toward us. Why’d she turn? It isn’t even a paved alley. But here she comes. Snarling. Incoherent. A small, vicious world pulled tight around her—she’s walled herself off from gentleness, reason, or even meaningful contact. She’s a one-winged bird, flapping low. The gravel impedes her progress, but even so, she’s steadily getting closer.

Unhinged people frighten me.

Of course, I know, you know, God is permanently, proudly, unhinged. An ever-present danger to my complacency. Ultimately, it’s always God pushing the shopping cart, arriving as requested. I often wonder why I ask. But this is irrelevant. The street lady comes for us all, requested or not.

She waits, scowling, while I meekly climb in. There’s room for my red box, the driftwood, and a few of the apples. I am adding to her burden, but I see no other option. This unflinching, castoff God shows me the way, holding a fractured mirror.

My real home is a borrowed wire cage, my shelter permeable, mostly imagined. I am wilting lilacs, aggressive weeds, swirling smoke and fine gray dust. I am the favored child of an unhinged God, waiting to see what will happen next.

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.