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.

 

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.

The Evil Within

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Watching the news makes me hateful. I contemplate murder. I don’t like this. “God,” I said. “It’s hard enough to see all the disgusting, bad, abusive, selfish, dirty rotten deeds in the world, but worse, if I sit very still, the vicious beasts inside me peek out and eat a piece of my soul. Or take a bite out of someone else.”

“Hmmm. Interesting,” God said, not acting all that interested.

“I’ve considered a lot of remedies. Whack-a-mole, rat poison, denial, embracing the shadow…I like the poison idea, but it seems excessive. And I don’t like the image of bloated dead bodies, inside or out.”

“I agree,” God said. “And it makes my job a lot more complicated. Raising those rats from the dead isn’t my idea of a fun afternoon.”

“Ah ha!” I said, pointing my finger. “I knew it. You. You let things be. You bring them back. You’re worse than the Dark Web or the Deep State. I bet you practiced witchcraft a couple centuries ago. You consort with the enemy.”

“Guilty,” God said, laughing. She took my finger and curled it so that it was pointing at my stomach. The demons inside screamed like the spoiled children that they are—indignant, defiant, foot-stomping brats.

“Come out and play,” God said to the demons. “The light will do you some good.”

And they did. We had a little picnic–sandwiches with sweet pickles and fresh kale. God smoothed their foreheads, brushed their hair, tickled them. They crawled on her lap, and the youngest ones nursed at her breast and napped in her arms. God looked down with affection. “I can make something of you,” God whispered. They snuggled in closer.

“Run,” I thought to the little demons, but I didn’t say it out loud.

God heard me anyway. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to hurt them. It isn’t possible to defeat evil with pain or torture. You can’t destroy it. It’s like energy. You can only transform it. Recycle. Compost. Start over.”

I felt sick and confused.

“Too much for you?” God asked. Her voice was soft but it penetrated my defenses and laid itself at my feet, a lamb’s wooly hide, a yoga mat, a warm bath.

“Yes,” I said in a weak voice. “I try pretty hard.” God nodded and sent the demons merrily on their way. They were saying true things to each other, waving and pointing back at God.

“What? How? They seem to know the truth,” I said, bewildered.

“Of course,” God smiled. “This is why you need them. The demons always know.”

Unadorable

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God was puttering around outside my window in the translucent glow of sunrise, looking pleased and peaceful. The sun and similar stars and cosmic wonderments are working out more or less as planned, which is a great comfort to the creator. Other ideas seem to be working out less well.

I put on my boots and stomp out to visit, but God waves me away. I understand. Sometimes, we get a little too much of each other.

To tell the truth, most of the time, I don’t actually adore God. By human standards, God’s a freak. Too big, too little, gargantuan, minuscule, too packaged and narrowly defined, but then expansive beyond the expanses—so utterly Alpha-Omega that it blows any honest mind to smithereens. A glimpse of God is far worse for the average brain than serial concussions on the football field.

But God, embodied in our evolution as a species, is my only hope. At times, this feels feeble indeed. But the great forgiver hangs in there with me, within me, around me, through me, and I hang in with her, even though for the life of me, I don’t get why it has to be this crazy. The planet lumbers along, at risk of becoming another rock orbiting the lovely sun, our species cavorts perilously close to extinction for no good reason, and she suffers along with us instead of zapping the motherfuckers responsible for this mess.

Since I’m dressed for the cold anyway, I fall backwards in the snow and flap my arms and legs in an effort to leave a mark on this transitory day. A gesture of defiance. A plea.

Sky above falls open, snow rolls up like carpet, and the filmy veil between time and eternity melts. A strong wind blows the seasons by, and in an act of pure mercy, God kneels to gather my whitened bones.

“Thank you,” I whisper. She nods. Something vastly beyond adoration breaks my heart, and I see all the people that ever were glowing golden in the backlit dawn, not one of us worthy of a goddamn thing. Not one.

“Take a picture,” she says. “This will be hard to remember.” I slug her in the arm as hard as I dare and get to my feet, shaky but ready. It’s time to go back in, fry some eggs, and mumble my usual incoherent prayers.

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.

 

Texas hold ’em

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Just outside my window, near my elbow, a mourning dove is calling. It’s God. I know because of the way the sound has cracked me open. There are days when I wear layers of down, warm and pliant. It’s easy to move, propelled by gratitude, aware of eternity. And there are days I when I roll out of bed straight into my specially-made armor—harder to make breakfast but easier to hold it together. In my armor, there’s very little light, even less wonder, and it’s a bad idea to cry. This day began with armor. Now, I’m going to take it off. This may be a day I’ll need to cry.

The wind howled from the mouth of hell through the night. Only a breeze remains. Enough to lift the blue spruce branches so they can wave and remind me of what they’ve seen. Later, I’ll gather the fallen bits and pieces and make a wreath from the shedding and stripping of all we endure. Nothing goes unnoticed. Nothing goes unused or unattended. Nothing goes uncounted. And nothing remains unscathed. This is the promise of second-hand ribbons and wind-fallen sticks.

Usually, I think God is the source of pain in my heart, forming and reforming the never-ending questions of compassion, autonomy, endurance, and finality. Of course, alternatively, the pain in my heart might be indigestion or cardiac blockages soon to dislodge and take me out.

Life is one big game of poker. I like to sing along with Kenny Rogers, my spiritual guide: You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.*

I’m still sittin’ at the table, grinning like a damn fool. I know my face gives me away. I suspect I’m in hock up to my ears, but I know the Dealer. He happens to own this place. I wish he had higher standards. Some of these players smell terrible, some appear almost dead. And the table needs work. But the cards keep coming, so I’ll ante up. For now.

 

*Kenny Rogers sang it. Don Schlitz wrote it in 1976.

Shotgun

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Driving along I 90, God and I spotted an ominous black billboard with red letters proclaiming “After you die, you WILL meet God.” The absurdity made us laugh. When God rides shotgun, the drive gets much more interesting.

“Now there’s an eyesore! Who do you think put that up?” God asked. Oh fun, I thought. A road game, like I spy with my little eye. (I play this with the grandchildren.) We’ll call this one Who put up that billboard?

“Well,” I said. “I’m guessing it’s someone you know quite well, but who only knows you through the lenses of judgement or vengeance. Am I right?”

“You’re warm,” God said.

“Okay. Let’s see. It’s got to be someone who’s unaware of all the places you hang out. Someone who doesn’t understand you make everyone’s acquaintance long before they open their eyes.” God nodded and gazed out the window, wispy tendrils of lavender floating around his head.

“And someone who has trouble understanding your infinite, ongoing, outlandish forgivingness. A bully, even. Trying to scare people into thinking you’re a bully too.”

God looked at me, grinned, and adjusted the seat. “These Prius seats are worse than economy class on the newer airplanes. Really hard on my lower back,” God said. “Think you can get the answer before Butte?”

I shrugged. The game was losing its appeal. I realized I didn’t like the person behind that billboard. I wanted to put another one alongside that said “You’ll meet God too, buddy. He’ll be gay. She’ll be the hungry one to your left. The homeless, uninsured drunk. He’ll be the one you put in the private, for-profit prison. She’ll be cold. Broke. Possibly abused. You will have crucified her more times than I can count.”

“Any more guesses?” God interrupted my line of thought. An answer had occurred to me. I didn’t want to say it, but with God, there’s no such thing. I hemmed and hawed. Then I just blurted it.

“It’s my neighbor, isn’t it?” I tightened my grip on the wheel, eyebrows knit together, angry tears welling up in my eyes.

“Right!!” God said. “Ding, ding, ding. You win. Way to go.”

“Ah, shit,” I said, using a word I usually avoid. God had tricked me again. “I should’ve known. I can’t love people like that, God. I just can’t.”

“Sure you can,” God said. His gnarled black hand covered mine for a moment, sending a wave of heat through my body. “I believe in you. Go for it. Remember, I’ve got your back.”

“Nonsense,” I said, giving God a punch in the shoulder.

“Nonsense,” God answered. We stopped in Butte for coffee.

Taxes

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God and I stayed up really late last night, watching pretty much anything we could get on regular TV. Except we avoided the news, or anything like the news. Being both omniscient and omnipresent, God has a harder time avoiding current events than I do, but we colluded as best we could. I ate left-over soup. God wasn’t hungry.

God stretched out on the loveseat, and I got my yoga mat, intending to do a few sit-ups during advertisements. The TV droned on.

“What’s on your mind?” God asked.

Nothing,” I said. “Why do you think we’re watching Big Bang reruns? Just call me Empty Mind. Checked Out. Clueless. In fact, let’s not talk right now.”

“Okay,” God said. The TV droned on. God got another pillow and dozed. I turned the lights down low and watched her instead of the TV for a while.

“What’re we going to do?” I silently asked the sleeping God. She was so beautiful. The steady rise and fall of her chest, the perfection of her eyebrows, her out-breath filling the room with a wild mixture of sage and lilac, animal musk, homelessness, and newly-minted money.

My human condition crept into the room, and settled beside me. I tried to slap it away and just watch God at rest, but it snuggled up, greedy, ugly, lazy, mortal, needy, vengeful, and as afraid as ever.

Look,” I whispered to it. “What if we could rest like that?”

My human condition gave me a sideways glance. Almost a dare. Then it eased itself alongside God and went to sleep. I curled up fetal on the floor. The TV flickered, grabbing at my attention like it was for sale. Which it is. Everything is for sale. We all have our price. Except God. Some may not realize this, but you can’t buy God off. And God really isn’t into tax breaks that hurt the poor. With God, it’s more of an all or nothing kind of thing. But she’s never believed in trickle down economics. Never.

God stirred. “Rough week,” she said sleepily. “C’mere.”

My human condition had sprawled itself into all the available space. The loveseat looked uncomfortable to say the least, and I was about to refuse, but God had opened her eyes. I can never resist those deep pools of unspeakable welcome.

So I awkwardly squeezed in, between my human condition and God. In the tangle of all those urges, elbows, and defeats, God found my hand. “Tomorrow, do what you can do,” she said. “Tonight, rest.”

“But that’s the problem,” I said, already drowsy. “I don’t know what to do.” Then I slept. And now she’s gone. And my human condition is awake, demanding breakfast. I’m struggling to be hospitable.

“That’s it,” I hear from the corner. I make more toast and watch the snow drift down.

Lifelines and Little Gods

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We’d survived another Thanksgiving, welcomed by others who were excellent cooks and hosts, and to be honest, I felt smug about it. No skeletal remains to deal with, literally or figuratively. We’d manage to locate ourselves firmly between generations, contributing only rolls (purchased) and our willingness to engage in small talk or do dishes. I made no attempt to locate God in the national news or football games. I engaged in no fleeting glances into the shadowy corners where God often lurks. The hatches were temporarily battened down. Placid.

This state never lasts. God shook me awake this morning, insistent. Large. I crawled out of the dream to the edge of the bed, and fell into a seething sea of meaninglessness. I flailed and hyperventilated. The lifeline God threw me was a twisted old tow line named tradition. It cut into my hands, but I had to hang on. These were deadly black waters. Not a good way to die. Or was it? As I debated this, the waters receded, along with a whole school of gleaming little Gods, small piranha that had nibbled away the dead flesh around my cuticles. In some exotic countries, you can purchase this sort of visitation.

Big God was digging in my suitcase, looking through Goodwill purchases. Mostly colorful scarves. I have a weakness for colorful scarves. She wrapped herself in a turquoise beach scarf, tied Irish green silk around her neck, and topped things off with hunter orange on her head.

“Why do you do this sort of thing?” I asked. “Isn’t this beneath you?”

“Nothing is beneath me,” she said, filling the room. “Nothing. You’ve mistaken me for a little God.”

“Oh, and how would you know that?” I asked. My voice was not warm.

“Ah, child, I think you know this.” she said with patience. “Little Gods are the products of little minds trying to make sense of things. There are lots of little Gods, lots of little minds. I’m well acquainted with them all.”

“Yeah? Well, I’m sick of them,” I said. “Can’t you at least make mine go away?”

“No,” Big God said. “That’s your job.”

I threw a snow boot at her. She ducked. Laughed. Faded. I kicked at the suitcase and considered braiding the scarves into one long rope so next time, next time, I could save myself. This struck me as the funniest thing ever, and the day began again.