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.

Debt

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There’s a guy who’s owed me $50.00 for over a year. The original debt was much larger, but with steady reminders, he grudgingly paid it down until it hit the fifty-dollar mark, and I’m pretty sure that’s where it’ll stay. I won’t remind him anymore. I’ve run out of kind words to pair with little nudges, and I’m tired of this struggle.

For a while, it was about the money, but now that it’s dwindled to $50.00, he’s making a statement of entitlement and resentment, and if I hang on, I’ll have to continue using shame to wedge myself into his conscience–a small space that makes me claustrophobic. Not worth it. I will passively forgive this debt, but I feel a little sorry for myself. Indignant.

In graduate school, a whiny woman I didn’t like borrowed two stamps from me. She never paid me back. It is astounding that I remember this, since I cannot recall what I read a half-hour ago, nor what I need at the grocery store, nor whether I’ve taken my vitamins yet.

Forgiving is a complex endeavor. There’s a highly-activated receptacle in our brains for perceived injustice, debt, and harm, and a longing for justice if not revenge. I’m not entirely sure how to forgive sometimes. Since God ‘s a specialist, I decide to check in.

“Hey God,” I say. Nothing.

“Um, God, I have a question.” Nothing.

I squeeze my eyes shut in serious prayer. Suddenly, I’m in a graduate-level course on forgiveness.  I raise my hand from the back of the classroom, but the instructor has stepped out. I take my hand back down, glancing at my classmates. Whoa. I should have looked around earlier. There’s a guy with a bloody machete, a haggard woman lying face down on the floor, with four children underneath her. Two are dead, one with an arm shot off. I see the woman is actually dead too. There’s a man holding a picture of his wife. Three people are on fire. Five soldiers stand in the back, two have amputations. One has no eyes. They all have a vacant look, slumped shoulders, automatic weapons at their feet.

I manage to stifle a scream and slip out of the room, hoping to find a back door. Instead, I find God. She’s created a makeshift kitchen in the hallway and she’s cooking soup. Baking bread. Singing. She tosses me an apron. The man who owes me $50.00 is handing out apples. The woman who took my stamps is standing, confused and inadequate, near the end of a table filled with desserts.

“Help her,” God says. “She’s a little shaky today.”

I’m not thrilled with this idea, but I see few options. I muster up a small smile, pick up a mint brownie, and hand it to this pathetic woman. Her face transforms. Of course, it’s God. I should have known. She wolfs down the brownie, grabs my hands, and we swing dance while she yodels.

“Now, about those stamps,” she says, finally slowing down.

Yeah. About those stamps.

 

 

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.

 

Mexico (in two stanzas)

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I

COFFEE

In Mexico, watching a purple bus drift by, I am expansive. I could break into a million pieces of particularity. My coffee is covered against the sparrow droppings, tiny feathers driven down by the trickster wind swirling around me. Moments ago, it grabbed my pesos and I had to kneel in the street to retrieve them.

With these words, I issue a summons to you, God of bent umbrellas, of fuscia bougainvillea, God of soft round buttocks wobbling along the narrow streets. People, larger and smaller than you intended, unaware of their great beauty. I summon you because I do not speak this language. I want to tell them I love them. And they frighten me.

The cobblestone streets have pools of muddy water where the image of God is repeatedly distorted.

God slides into a chair beside me. “Bend,” he says with a heavy Spanish accent.

I am bent.

“Look within.”

I look. There it is. The belly, the underbelly, the future and the past. I’m not among the young, nor the fragile. I’m pale and bewildered. I wonder if something, somewhere, might nourish my roots or clarify the shadows lurking on the horizon. The pathetic little cactus in the door is dead.

God holds the sky. With as much dignity as I can muster, I pay the check and step into the downpour.

II

MASSAGE

It was a nice massage until God showed up. She changed the music to random cosmic sounds and began slinging my head around like a bowling ball, doing long probing strokes down both sides of my neck. Sometimes, God doesn’t know her own strength.

I groaned involuntarily. God said something in Spanish.

“No habla Espanol,” I said, my voice mingled with indignation and shame. This was not news to God, but I wasn’t sure what else to say.

I’ve seen God lurking in the streets here in San Miguel de Allende since that first morning, but until the massage, we’d not had much contact. The colors are distractingly vibrant here; the traffic, the people constant and close. And bells. So many bells calling everyone to Mass. In India, the calls to prayer were just as insistent. I wonder if God attends now and then. Usually, I think she just sits on the side of the road, hand extended, eyes shaded. This is where the devil sits too. No wonder they ring so many bells.

God’s elbow dug into my trapezius muscle on the right. It’s always sore there. I winced. What could I possibly say to defend myself? God was energized, almost giddy. The musical tones and rhythms were accelerating. God’s talons circled my middle, I softened to feathers, and we soared skyward until earth blurred to a massive indistinction, like the abstract art at the Institute, suggesting–but not insisting–on life.

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.

A Smidgen of Atheism

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“Here’s something funny to think about,” God said, lounging on the motel bed in Bozeman, shedding innocent dark skin on the bleached sheets. “Short bursts of exercise are good for aging muscles, and short bursts of atheism are good for the soul.”

The previous occupants of this room had left the alarm set. It went off early, an unpleasant throbbing tone, and I was not in a good mood. I was tired. My mind didn’t want to think. My body didn’t want to move.

“Why do you come by like this?” I asked, unwilling to consider anything but my irritation.

God sat up, beautifully naked. She draped herself loosely in the manicured landscaping outside the window, and quoted Ayn Rand. “That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.”

God stressed the words “your mind’s freedom to think or not”

I put a pillow over my head and curled fetal under the covers. God must have read Martina’s blog. I’ve been worried about the state of humanity, and human consciousness for a long time. Are we more than our genes? Is anything our fault, or is it all our fault? I blame God for this confusion. Maybe we’ve evolved too fast. We seem to have stopped thinking. We seem to be arrested, elevating comfort over compassion, allowing simple confusion to muddy the clear waters of the complicated truth. Endorsing selfishness as holy.

I pulled the pillow tighter, but it disintegrated. The flimsy walls fell, and children from Venezuela, Syria, Arizona and Maine, children from concentration camps, war zones, and desperate homes, traded, displaced, abused, malnourished, and frightened–they crawled into bed with me. They should’ve at least bounced and played, but they were too hungry. Too broken. Too angry. They found my left-over Indian food in the wasteful individual refrigerator and smeared me with it. It burned my flesh. I screamed for mercy, for healing. I pleaded with the universe for food and shelter, sanity, wisdom, consciousness, humility, and an end to human greed. Or at least insight into my own.

There’s got to be something, I said to myself, frantic. Something I can do.

I felt as though I was going mad. The small gestures I imagined fell into a black pit of irrelevance. Too little, too late. The children grew quiet and sat with me.

God looked on. And on. The meticulously-planted flowers continued to bloom.

 

 

Paint

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I caught God in the basement messing around in my modest assortment of half-full cans of paint. Or at least I thought it was God. It was dark, but there was an eerie glow emanating from the far corner that both attracted and frightened me. That’s God in a nutshell.

“What do you think of my paint collection?” I asked hesitantly.

“I like it,” came the cheery response. “Color. Texture. Latex. Stains. Oil-based stuff. You’ve got it all, more or less.”

God’s approval is a boon anytime, but admiration for my near-hoarding of old paint—now that was spectacular. I was ecstatic.

“Some of it’s dried up, some’s moldy,” God added. God has X-ray vision, so I knew this was true. “And you have at least four cans of that ugly, dull orange. Looks like you tried mixing bad stuff. Never works.”

My ecstasy was waning as God’s appreciation became more selective.

“Yeah,” I said. “I was trying to get a mellow, warm orange.”

God laughed, stepped out of the shadows, and slapped me on the back.

“I like how hard you try,” God said. “But mellow orange will not happen anywhere near sage green. You know giving up can be as holy as stubbornly plowing forward, right?”

“Well.” I said. “Same to you. I’ve met some people who are way uglier than that paint. At least I can use the paint in the chicken house. What’re you going to do with those disgusting lumps of humanity? I’ve been trying to love them, somehow, a miniscule little bit, but the best I can do is pretend. They’re destructive, lazy, lying, self-righteous jerks. A serious waste of protoplasm. And because you already know this, I’ll just say it. I hate them.”

“Yup. I knew that,” God said. “Why are you trying to love them?”

I did a double-take. “Because, well. I guess because I think you want me to.”

God gave me a quizzical look, then began to fade artfully away, wavering like fumes above the seven cans of turpentine. With a soft kiss on the top of my head, God repeated “I like how hard you try.”

I felt deflated. Thwarted. I sat down on a five-gallon bucket of neutral gray to consider my next move. I didn’t want a passing grade in effort. I wanted excellent marks. Perfect 10s, 5 stars.

“You’ll take some failures with you to the grave,” God said. “I’ll meet you there.”

 

Not Fair

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My brother loaned me his rototiller and I haven’t returned it. He says he’ll come get it if he needs it. I say well, that’s not really fair. He says whoever said life was fair? I mutter something like well, at least I should try to make it more fair. He just smiles.

“Hey, God,” I yell, after my brother drives away. “Whoever said life was fair?”

“Not I,” says God. “I’m not in charge of that idea. In fact, it’s a childish notion I hope you’ll outgrow someday. Who gets more candy? Who sleeps on the top bunk? This is okay when you’re seven. Tiresome behavior for adults.”

It began to rain. It rained on the river and on the cracked, thirsty garden. It rained on the pavement and on a spring wedding somewhere. The wind picked up and blew so hard I gasped for breath. It blew down a tree, it blew waves in the water, it blew away the simplistic demands we make of our shrink-wrapped God. The rain came sideways and the real God shimmered, at ease in the liquid uncertainty we think of as life.

I started a fire. God shook like a dog and joined me. My fate in the hands of rain. My days in the arms of wind. This chills me to the bone. I rub my stiff hands and sip tea.

“Justice is different than fairness,” God says. “You know that eye for an eye thing?”

I nod, wary.

God continues, patient. “That’s the upward limit. No more than an eye for an eye. But less is better. In fact, I favor forgiveness and compassion. Your species is more likely to survive that way.”

“Duh,” I snap at God. “Justice. Mercy. Compassion. Humility. I get it.” I pause and calm myself. “But I don’t think it’s fair you aren’t helping us more.” I smile. God smiles. It’s good we have these little chats.

My twinkly-eyed friend with his infectious laugh will soon be dead from the cancer he’s carried for decades. I can eat a second or third salted caramel while I write this. When I turn on the news, likely I’ll see a child bloated with hunger, floating on a crowded raft. I won’t gag. Maybe I should. God, should I gag?

The rain pounds down and the river’s rising. No answer. No answer at all.

Saturday Morning, Me and God

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There was massive, unavoidable death on the horizon this morning. It’s there every morning, but I usually look away and eat toast with the radio on—the familiar lulling me into another manageable day. But God had gotten up quite a bit earlier, pulled the shades on all the other windows, and hid my coffee. I ran for the beer. God blocked the way. I feigned a coughing fit. God slapped me on the back and waited. I plugged my ears and said “Na, na, na, na, na…” but God sang along. So I unstopped my ears, opened my eyes, settled my soul, and looked the only direction I could see.

“Is this really how it ends?” I said to God. “So much suffering. So much violence. So much hate?”

“I don’t know,” God answered. “It might end more peacefully. I’m as curious as you.”

“I’m not curious,” I said. “I’m sad and terrified.”

“I know,” God said. “Me too. But aren’t you a little bit curious?”

I thought about it. Am I curious about which disaster ends life as we’ve known it on planet earth? Maybe a little. Because I’m old anyway. Will it be global warming or cooling, caused by us-who-shall-not-be-named? Forced population increase because no birth control or abortions, or even educational opportunities are available to the women? Will it be war, humans determined to kill each other for the sake of….ummm….ideologies? Money? Their idea of God? Will it be the rich, with their weapons amassed, or the poor, with their fists hardened in hunger and despair?

I snapped my attention back to my demanding guest. “God. I’ve mentioned this before, but how can you let people judge, abandon, hurt and kill each other, claiming it’s your will?”

God’s head sagged. “Yeah, I wonder that myself. But I decided on this free will frontal lobe experiment with you all. I’ve given you as many hints and examples as I dare, modeled options that would provide sustainable ways to live, and graceful ways to die. I’ve put nature in motion–wondrous, awesome, stunning works of art that should inspire. Do you have any idea what’s gone wrong?”

“Well, God,” I said. “Not really. I mean, I try, but I’m one of them. Remember? Just as susceptible to deception, greed and hatred as the next human.”

God nodded. “I know.”

We sat down and drank the coffee together in silence. God likes it black and strong. I prefer a fair amount of half-and-half.

 

Stick in the Mud

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Again, this morning, the rain fell at all the wrong times and fist-sized snowflakes taunted spring’s attempt to arrive. But spring will win in the end. Until summer grabs hold and starts burning down the days, rivers rising and falling, hopes rising and falling, life and death in the usual tangle of grand schemes and undergrowth. Today, that’s as far as I’m going to go. Yes, likely, there will be autumn on the heels of summer. Likely, another vicious white winter will come.

Perhaps I’ll still be eating dark chocolate caramels. Parking my old van in the new garage. Burning firewood I’ve carefully stack and tarped. Perhaps not. I don’t ask anymore. I wait. God sends me junk mail and drives by in a ridiculous convertible, top down, hair flying out behind. I just wave. I don’t even open the mail. It opens me. I close back up as fast as I can, but not before I see myself, hoping I’ve won the sweepstakes, ignoring the pleas for donations, refusing to believe the sad, sad stories or the silly promises, hating the hype and the hubris of my fellow beings, and yes, of myself.

Sometimes, I consider hitching a ride in that convertible. No doubt, it’d be the ride of my life. Anytime I dismantle my disbelief, God seeps in, croaking like a frog, singing like a canary, dancing like a fool, driving like a maniac. But so far, I’m keeping my thumbs tucked in, head down, feet planted firmly in the mud. She’s one crazy dude, and I’m precariously human. She dives off the deep end, flailing and free.

God wedges herself into my head. “Nice little set of paragraphs,” she says. I roll my eyes. She continues. “And I get the mud. It’s not a bad thing to dig in and stay safe. In fact, I like mud.”

I feel a little defeated. Confused. It isn’t comforting that God likes mud. And she doesn’t leave it at that. “I like speed, and sky, and green. I like hot pink. I like jazz and country-western. Gays and straights, blacks and browns.” She pauses for a microsecond, then adds, “And I love the deep end.”

She sees my reaction. Smiles. “I think you’ve forgotten a key piece of the picture, sweetie.” I nod, hoping for something sane and solid.  Foolish me. God plugs her nose and leaps into an imaginary pool. “I AM the deep end,” she shouts. Air ripples like water as she swims gracefully away.