Not My Idea

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“You realize America was not my idea, right?” God said. It was more a statement than a question—a comment likely brought on by my sense of alienation and dismay at our current national struggles.

“Duh,” I answered. “That’s painfully clear. I’m not blaming you.” I was washing the dishes with hot, soapy water. “It wasn’t my idea either,” I added.

The radio was on in the background, the ongoing absurdities in the news were ruining my evening. When you’re chatting with God, perspectives shift. The phrase “America First” is revealed for what it is: a puny, frightened declaration of selfishness that flaps defiant and pathetic in the gentle breath of God.

“You know we’re a defective species, right?” I said. I was in a very bad mood.

“Duh,” God answered. “That’s painfully clear.” God began drying the plates with little microbursts of warmth. “And I don’t blame you,” God added. “The blame game is a real dead end. Better to focus on hope.”

“Easy for you to say,” I said. “I got nothing.”

“Well, I think there’s a chance you’ll figure it out,” God said cheerfully. “You people divide yourselves up in the oddest ways. I admire your ingenuity, though it’s tragically misused. The us/them game is far more dangerous than the blame game. But…maybe, maybe. I don’t know. Maybe you’ll realize how damaging these artificial divisions are and stop scaring the pants off yourselves all the time.”

I thought about my fears and my meager progress at overcoming them.

“How’s your throat?” God asked. John and I had just spent six hours driving across the state in the smoke-infused cab of an old box truck we temporarily acquired as an act of charity. Or at least that’s what we think we did.

“Sore,” I answered. This was true. My head hurt and my clothes smelled atrocious.

“Kindness has a price tag,” God said. “Love is messy. Sometimes ugly. Sometimes deadly.”

I’d had enough. “God,” I said in the most patient voice I could muster. “I’m sorry, but I’m not in the mood for this. I’m tired. I feel sorry for myself. It’s cold in here, and I’m homesick for my younger self, when optimism was easier and endings weren’t so often or so clear.”

“I hear you,” God said. “I’m actually not in the mood either. I’m lonely and much older than you can even conjure. Very little agrees with me. Nothing tastes quite right. I’m often as miserable as you are. And for me, there’s no such thing as an ending. Maybe you should be grateful.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “But I’m not.”

We gave each other a halfhearted hug and parted ways–meaning I shut down while God expanded into the ink-black ocean of all that has ever been. I slept soundly in a threadbare hammock suspended between finality and the eternal. Not safe, but somehow, secure.

Up to you

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“Up to you,” God said. This is a lonely answer.

My hot bath had steamed the bathroom mirrors. I was brushing my teeth, contemplating all the irritating, confusing choices humans face. Which main dish to order, which shirt to buy, which route to take, which career to pursue, which allegiances to pledge, which weapons to use, which sacrifices to make, which people to love–how much to eat, when to arrive, when to leave, when to support, when to withhold, when to sing and when to scream–the choice of what to believe, who to trust. Even not choosing is choosing. There’s no way out.

“I know you have opinions,” I said. “Why can’t you be more open about them? Why can’t you be more helpful?”

God snorted.

“I take that to mean I’m supposed to know already,” I said. Like a tired professor, God wrote the words justice, mercy, and humility in the steam on the mirror. “Oh, sure,” I said. “Thanks, Mr. Subtle. I think you left out truth and compassion. Maybe I need a bigger mirror.”

I thought I was being funny. God didn’t laugh.

“You know,” I continued. “Lots of choices are made with no regard for you, one way or the other. You’re a pawn—a lousy excuse or nothing. You’ve tragically over-estimated our capacities. And now? What are you doing? We’re in so much trouble.”

God crossed his arms. Uncrossed his arms. Looked at me. His gaze was steady. I could see through his planetary eyes to the end of creation and back, the path swirling and surging with deceptively simple equations. He was everything. He was nothing. He was of a purity I could not comprehend. He opened his hands, and a thousand knives clattered to the floor. He was bleeding profusely.

“God!” I gasped. It looked like he might lose consciousness. I tried to cushion his fall. I shook him and said, “God. Hang on. Hang on, buddy. Do you hear me? Stay with me, God. Stay with me.”

I shouted for help. There was no one to call 911. There are no ambulances equipped to deal with a hemorrhaging universe and a broken-hearted God. The child at the border, dead. The old woman starving in Syria. The tender earth split open and gutted. God’s creatures eating plastic, God’s body bleeding out. God’s face in my hands.

“This is too hard,” I sobbed, filled with fear and self-pity. “You know it’s too hard.” I started to lay down beside him on the cold tile floor, to give up, to wait for the end in the waning warmth of a dying God. But he was gone.

I opened my inner eyes, still afraid, but the tiniest bit hopeful. Far, far away, I could see him walking with great deliberation in the garden. Small birds were closing his wounds, and color was returning to his cheeks. I knew I was invited. And I knew it was up to me.

 

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.”

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.

Coping With the Bad Days

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As I pulled up on my bike to check on repairs underway on our van, God came out the back door in his underwear, bent over from the pain in his belly. He claimed it was the doughnut he’d eaten last night. He seemed confused–frightened about his prostate symptoms. “Got cancer down there. I think it’s spread to my nuts.” He motioned towards his testicles which I could have glimpsed if I tried, given the sparse and baggy nature of his attire. “This is my girlfriend’s house,” he explained. “I didn’t mean to stay here, but the police, and the people evaluating me…I’m not a hoarder. I’m autistic. I bought you some parts, but I can’t deal with it. Maybe next time.”

I could see the mottled top of his bald head where a nasty boil had crusted over. With one hand, he clawed at the air near me, seeking solace, coherence, connection. He wanted a kind of reassurance I could not possibly give. It’s the kind of reassurance I usually beg from him. And he’s stuck with the same dilemma. Such reassurances are hollow. Inane. In the short run, everything will not be okay.

I offered what I could. “God,” I said. “Some days will be better than this.”

He moaned and held his stomach. I gave him a teddy bear I’d found in a dumpster. It was clean and soft, tan, with a pink bow. He examined my gift. “This looks familiar,” he said. “I think I’ve met this bear somewhere before. Can’t recall for certain.” He held it against his pain.

Ordinarily, I might have been ashamed of a dumpster gift, but not with God. Our eyes met. Beyond his prostate and roiling intestines, far from his festering boils, half-truths, and tattered underwear, a firefly flitted across the back of our retinas and exposed the dark for what it is—nothingness waiting for light. A blanket. A good place to hide and lick your wounds. Easily done in.

“Sometimes, the dark should be left alone,” God said.

I knew this. I nodded and turned my bike toward home. God faded. I felt certain he was going to the river where there are always people who need to get across. It’s especially dangerous this time of year.

Coffee

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This is hard to admit, but it appears my attitude toward life is dependent on a good cup of coffee and whole wheat toast. These are bedrock to my salvation from the tedium of the known world. Sure, I enhance my attitude by conscious efforts and limiting my exposure to the news, but a morning bereft of sustenance takes me down the rabbit hole of despair.

God arrives on the frozen wings of this morning’s wind. I’m ready to confess. “God, I wish I were more resilient, but without coffee and food, I don’t think I believe in you.”

God laughs. “No worries, darling. I still believe in you, and so far today, I haven’t eaten a thing.”

“Fasting?” I said, trying to move the subject away from belief.

“Not exactly,” God said. “When you’re God, eating is complicated. Basically, I wait until I’m invited.”

At first glance, this didn’t seem like much of a problem. If you had a chance to have God over for dinner, why wouldn’t you? There had to be a trick. Invite God for dinner? Why not?

The reasons started rolling in. What would I serve? Would God want salad and dessert? The right silverware? In what form would God arrive? There it was. The central problem. God would come parading in as a stinky homeless guy with a dog. The dog would snarl. The guy might steal things. Or God could show up as a whole camp of refugees, big-eyed, big-bellied, unable to speak in a civilized tongue.

And it wouldn’t be a temporary visitation. That invitation could lead to discomfort and displacement. My bank account would dwindle, my security would be shaken. Even fortified with coffee, and a dark beer waiting, this was too hard for me. I have plans for Pad Thai take-out tonight. I don’t want to ruin this cozy vision by inviting God along.

“I can’t finish this toast,” I said. “I always make about half a piece too much. Would you like it?” Even this was hard to admit. Hard to offer.

God nodded and rocked quietly in our gliding rocker by the stone fireplace. Sure enough, the ugly, hungry, hopeless people began crowding in. God took the crusts and broke them, and broke them, and broke them. There was laughter. God and the children playing tag. God and the old women sharing my beer. God and the young men, admiring the weapons they no longer needed.

“Such abundance,” God said. “Such ingenuity. And with time, you’ll do even better.”

Even full of toast and coffee, I have trouble believing this. But I’m willing to try.

 

On a date with God (again)

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God asked me out on a date, and I threw caution to the wind and accepted. Dating God has distinct disadvantages. First, we go nowhere. We sit in second-hand chairs, drinking stale beer, listening to tunes people posted on Facebook, and we cry. We cry for the homeless, the cold, the hungry, the uninsured, the unwelcome. We cry for those grieving, those healing, and those who will not heal. We cry as the embers stop glowing and the room grows cold. The saints and prophets, the angels and devils, the Buddhas and philosophers crowd together for warmth, and the sky stays bleakly gray. We cry.

“God,” I say, trying to stifle the sobs. “This…this…this isn’t helping.” But one look at God and I collapse back into the mire of all that is wrong, all that hurts, all that enrages. God is midnight blue, absorbing the light and the agony, mixing it up. God is alive with sorrow, awash in the dreadful choices humans keep making. We are destroying the earth. We torture, maim, consume, lie, steal, and kill, denying culpability past the point of absurdity. God gulps it down, takes the hits, stays the course.

Finally, God drains the last of yesterday’s special Yuletide brew and pulls himself together. He’s not a sloppy drunk, and I’m not a cheap date. We hold hands as the crashing waves of all that is true slowly calm into a serene sea of snow. It’s brutally cold. The shy sun pushes through cracks in the blanketed horizon, insisting we remember how beautiful–how devastatingly beautiful–the frozen earth can be when hit by light.

“May I have this dance?” God asks. I agree. This may not be the tune I was hoping for, but there’s no way to know when the band will stop playing. It seems wiser to make the best of it now, rather than wait for the perfect beat.