Followers

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“Hey God, look,” I said, pointing at my email. “We got another follower.” My coauthor feigned deafness and pointed east toward the rising sun.

“What?” I asked. “You want the blinds up?” She nodded. I complied and continued, my voice less certain. “You know we have people who read about our chats, right?” God looked at me. It wasn’t an encouraging look, but I didn’t let up. “We have over a hundred and…”

“So?” God interrupted, drilling directly into my own deeper questions. “And you know there are literally billions of blogs, right? If words were food, there’d be no hunger,” she said with a sigh that I interpreted as judgement.

“Yeah,” I snapped. “And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Dust swirled in the aggressive light streaming into the room–glittering little particles of burned wood, dead skin, pulverized top soil. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Words to words. Ideas to ideas. I wanted to scream and rip my insides out. This can’t be it. This can’t be all.

“It’s not,” God said. “It’s not all. It never is. Get in the old white car and drive. Find a new horizon.”

I teared up. God had called my bluff. “I can’t,” I said, sorrowful. “I just can’t. This is my life. The only one I have. The only one I will ever have. I can’t risk knowing any more than I already know. I’ve arrived too late to save anyone.”

“Of course you have,” God said. “And besides, one of the engine mounts has deteriorate. It’s not entirely safe. But the tires are new. The bread is fresh. And the bodies are broken…” She choked up. “The bodies are so, so broken.”

I rushed over, sorry I’d refused her offer, sorry I knew so little, sorry I was so limited and afraid. The way forward was obscure, but I rallied. “Don’t feel bad, God,” I said, grabbing what I could of her in my arms. “I’ll give it a try. There’s a little over half a tank. Maybe we could see where that takes us, okay?”

God looked surprised and nodded. “Nothing is as it appears,” she said slowly, in her best teacher voice. She held my chin in her hand. “There will be wind this afternoon. You can hide from it, chase it, or get out that dusty kite and fly it.”

I remembered a day at the beach, long ago. My landlubber mother admired the fancy kites and bought some for the grandchildren, but she was too timid to try one herself. I wondered how things might be different had she’d tried.

My reverie was interrupted by fast-approaching thunder. The earth was throbbing, the pulse of God coming up through my bones. I looked up. Hundreds of thousands of beggars were galloping across the horizon, their horses majestic, their tattered clothing flying like flags. They waved and cheered, the sky jagged with silhouettes. They were like ET going home. A stampede of jubilation.

Even though it was very cold, the old white car started right up. God hopped in, rubbing her hands.

I turned and faced her. “Where you headed, stranger?” I asked, hiding my fear behind a pathetic John Wayne accent. God threw back her head and laughed like that was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. This helped. I put the car in gear.

“You should never pick up a hitchhiker,” God said, still chuckling.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Buckle up.”

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

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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.

Risk Assessment

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Sometimes, God makes it look like prayer actually works. Other times, the apparent anarchy of the universe leaks through every layer of my consciousness, and it seems more productive to praise the wind and sky, the stones and soil–more logical to buy a lottery ticket than meekly ask about the right way forward. But then, things happen. Like when God stopped by Sunday evening with eroded teeth and a need for housing.

“First things first,” God said. “I’m a felon.” His hands were shaking a little. “I’ll understand if it’s beyond you to give me shelter.” He went on to explain that a church on the edge of town was praying he’d find a place, so if this didn’t work, that was okay. The right place would appear.

I resented this. It felt like a conspiracy. Who was this, really? God? The Devil? A broken human, standing in? The prayers of the people pelted me like driving rain. I was soaked in a matter of minutes, chilled to the bone, indignant.

“So, ahhh.” I said, stalling. “References?” God provided phone numbers.

“Children?”

God ducked his head. There were tears. He said “Yes, long story. They won’t be living here with me. I’ve gotta stabilize. Find a place.”

A combination of cologne and cigarette smell oozed from his clothing.

“Do you smoke?” I asked, looking for an easy out.

“Yes, but only outside. One thing at a time, y’know?”

It’s a terrible thing when God drapes himself in the needs of the world and crowds in alongside a regular day. Maybe this is why I keep my days so full–brimming with quirks, needs, fears, and imagined emergencies. Maybe, too, this is why I keep myself surrounded with the square footage I call home.

But way deep inside, I suspect there’s no such thing. We make up the idea of home, but it’s fleeting, easily blown away in a driving wind, swept downstream in the flood, or swallowed when the earth convulses. God and I often sit by the fire in my cozy living room and contemplate such things. When she’s like that, I’m happy and warm. When he’s like this—dependent, defenseless–I recoil.

My son-in-law offers a kind word and at least a dollar to every shady-looking street person who approaches him. Even some who don’t. He shakes hands. I’ve watched this many times, mentally making excuses for myself and my judgments. He’s strong and quick. I’m old and vulnerable. I shrink back.

But this time, I rally. A part of me I often ignore knows this: We’re meant to body surf on waves of compassion, not hole up with our cronies or shout clever slogans from behind police barriers. We’ve got to risk being used, bruised, fooled, and foiled.

“Okay, God,” I said. “I’ll call some references.” He nodded and left without pleading. I like that in a needy person.

The references were glowing. A parole officer, respectfully noting how hard these guys try. How little they have to work with. A business person, willing to crawl out on a limb. And me. Gullible? Maybe. But hell. What’s there to lose?

I’ve rented the basement to God. We’ll see how that works out.

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.”

Too Old For Anything but the Truth

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I am now officially too old to pledge allegiance to anything but the truth, so every morning I get up hoping to encounter something true. If God is awake, this usually causes him to clear his throat while the sun removes the frost from the windows. Perfect frost. Perfect sun.

I try not to look directly at God because I’m afraid he’ll spoil the moment. If I hold perfectly still, perfect moments roll around in the room, clear blue marbles, resembling the way the earth looks from the heavens. They balance on the surface of reality like uncried tears. In a terrible, frail, temporary way, all things are good, and perfect. In their beingness, all things are true. This is something God agreed with at least once, so I’m wondering…

“Yes,” God says. “I still agree.”

I pour God a cup of coffee, not noticing the dead fly in the bottom of the cup. God adds cream and sees the body floating on the surface. There’s been a serious invasion of spiders and houseflies as the weather turns. Most of them come in and die. Ordinarily, I avoid vacuuming, but they’re piling up, so I’ll have to clean again. None of this feels perfect. The day takes on a familiar tedium.

God skims the fly off the top of his coffee and takes a sip.

“Gross!” I say. “I can get you another cup.”

“I know,” God says. “But don’t bother. What’s a dead fly here and there?”

I admire this crude nonchalance. In the Arctic, it’s impossible to drink a bowl of warm soup before a layer of mosquitoes dive-bomb and die on the surface. You sip dead mosquitoes gladly. A far worse threat looms on the frozen horizon.

God is watching me as he sips the steaming coffee, bushy eyebrows tipped inward in a kindly look. The frost has melted. Intense October light takes over, casting sharp shadows, promising magic.

The smell of dark honey on my leftover toast breaks my heart. I know have no choice. No real choice but to accept the ethereal truths that plague and frighten me. That exhaust and break me down. All I have is a blurry vision of this clear blue moment on this clear blue planet, and though I’d rather achieve a more known perfection, I have to vacuum flies and change the sheets. I’m expecting important guests.