Ordinary

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The morning had gone exceptionally well so I took a minute to say thanks. God shrugged and said, “Everything’s not about you, you know.”

This seemed harsh, but yes, I was a little self-focused. From my personal perspective, slightly magical things had been happening. I’d found four of my favorite coffee mugs at Goodwill, as well as decent boots, muffin tins, and a bigger strainer for my kefir projects. Why not give the Universe a hug back?

“Because smooth sailing and blue cups prove nothing,” God said, arms crossed. “Cancer, heart disease, bad breath, and broken hearts mean nothing. They just are. They are neither omens nor proof.”

“I don’t think you understand,” I said. “That’s cruel. You have no idea what it feels like to be chronically grasping at meaning, vacillating between faith and futility. You have yourself with you all the time.”

“You’ve got a point there,” God said. “But I don’t have it all that easy either. I like seeing you happy, but when you get bogged down in misattributions, I feel the need to adjust your sights.”

Now my arms were crossed. “Fine,” I said. “Adjust away.”

Nostrils flared, stars tumbled, oceans flattened, and rudely awakened from geologic slumber, mountains rose angry and jagged. My hair fell out, my eyes rolled, and there was nothing anywhere to hang on to. Nothing but the vague and slippery idea of God. It hardly seemed enough, but it was all there was. Believe me. All there was. No blue cups. No muffin tins. No loving reassurances. No monsters to kill, no diseases to fight, no paths to discern. Nothing but this idea beyond words—this translucent whisper of the only truth, the only source, the only finality.

“Uncle,” I said to God in existential agony. “I give up. You win. It’s all you. I’m sorry I’m so needy and temporary. I know you’re lonely, even though you’re everything. But what can I do? I’m nothing.”

God startled. “Sorry. I may have over-done it. It’s true you’re nothing, but I forgot to show you that you’re also everything.” God started to fill her lungs for another out-breath.

“Stop!” I shouted, hands over ears, eyes tight shut. “Maybe another time.” I didn’t want to be everything. I needed space to pull myself back together. I wanted a kind of coherence that cannot be spoken. I longed to get in my dented old green van and drive beyond the vanishing point, contained, alone, and untouchable.

“Shotgun,” God said, trying to open the door with the broken handle. Laughter burst from the center of my self-aborption. I was delighted that this bumbling, apologetic God was determined to ride along.

“Okay,” I said, and added, “Thanks for those blue mugs, you old scalawag. I’m not as gullible as you think.”

 

Your mama told you there’d be days like this

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In the southeast corner of my life there’s a perfect circle of stone visible to anyone uphill or airborne. The northern boundary is an entirely different story. It’s a river that shapeshifts with the seasons. Water washes over the fallen cottonwood, gouges the mountain, and settles in deadly eddies.

Today, it is all too much, and paradoxically, nothing is ever enough. Not God, not people, not earth, not sky. The small and large injustices plaguing me have metastasized and lit the landscape with a cold, blue fire.

Some small part of me lives in fear. Lives in fear. Lives in fear. I’d like to kill off that part and live with more grace. That part would like to kill me off and reign as a vicious sovereign. Usually, I keep her underground and undernourished. Today, I am sorely tempted to throw her red meat. Why not? The world is awash in sovereigns eating red meat. I myself am mostly red meat.

God is a stretch of long gray sky, atmospherically unstable. Dead in the way of winter. The first signs of spring arrive from the grave—weeds, spiders, mud, and hunger. Mating rituals begin. Some will die showing off their antlers or plumage. Some will be passed over and never bear fruit. So what? That’s what I say. So what?

The gardener has turned the soil. The physician has opened a vein. The old woman is wearing her apron. The migrant has crossed the border. A child has been born. They are all doomed with the dignity of temporary flesh, but as they hold hands, as the world turns, as the rivers flow, as rocks hold firm, as the ozone shreds, as the species evolve, as fatal floods fertilize and recede, a certain and tragic joy remains. I want none of it.

For now I will stubbornly inhabit the illusion of autonomy. God has agreed to stay west of here, busily mixing the colors that will mark the setting of this particular sun. “Thank you,” I murmur, aware of the costs of such holy self-restraint. God nods.

No one goes it alone, but glittering fools pretend otherwise, and sometimes, I join them, peering at the world through my homemade periscope. With carefully-placed mirrors, you can create endless images of the same thing.

Cookies

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This morning, I stumbled into a nest of words that swarmed up like wasps and stung me. Disown, disavow, defy, dissent. Renounce, repudiate, reject, rebuff, refute, rebut. Deny. None of these words can ward off a root canal or undo a pregnancy. Even spoken together, they can’t change the meaning or length of any given life. They cannot change what is true. But they can do damage.

“Correct,” God said. She’d stopped by for coffee on her way to the city where these words are far more dangerous. “It’s tempting to deny rather than deal with things. Easier to disown than own up. But where’d you be without dissent when the tanks are at full throttle? Or refute when what is spoken is not true?”

Memories of Tiananmen Square…dissenting bodies flattened into dark stains of blood and flesh. Fast forward, flash back. Locations and causes vary, but it doesn’t end. People as pawns, people as predators. People fleeing or fighting back. People against people.

God turned the radio down and ate another cookie. “I’m not surprised that humans are a migratory species,” she said, rather randomly.

I thought about this for a minute. “Yeah, but it doesn’t seem voluntary,” I said. “People migrate because of disaster, violence, hunger…and they aren’t often well-received.” I pictured people jailed, children caged, battles, conquests, claims, displacements, paperless people pushed back or enslaved. I could see thick walls adorned with razor-sharp metal built to stem the flow of hope that comes disguised as desperation. Migration seemed even more dangerous than dissent.

“Sure,” God said. “Forced migration can be brutal. But humans also just explore. They get bored. They reach higher, dive deeper, and widen the circle. And sometimes, the stranger is welcomed with real hospitality. I like that.”

God’s placid mood slowly drained the toxins from my swollen oppositionalities. Or it could have been the beer. Or the turkeys pacing the fence. Or maybe the return of the Canadian geese, paired and gliding through the snowy sky. Whatever the source, I found the wherewithal to smile.

“I like that, too,” I said, and remembering my manners, I added, “I’m glad you stopped by. Thanks.”

“De nada,” God said. She put a cookie in her pocket. “One for the road.”

“Take more,” I said, pushing the blue plate towards her. “Take as many as you’d like.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” God said. She helped herself to every last cookie. Our eyes met. She grinned. I could see cookie crumbs caught in her teeth. Cookie crumbs on her jacket. Bits of cookie falling from her grasp, turning into a sea of cookies, mountains of cookies, a sky of cookies. A planet of fresh-baked cookies.

“How did you ever get involved with a God like that?” I asked myself as she and her cookie-filled fists faded. I shook my head, but to be honest, I have no regrets. Occasional terror, but no regrets.

Random and Small Redemptions

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Lately, I’ve been having the weirdest experiences ever. I call them God, but they freak me out. Little serendipities. Parallel visions of fire. Random and small redemptions. Good things happen. Are they God? Bad things happen. Are they God? Can you pray yourself into an astounding win? Can you pray yourself out of a fatal car wreck? No wonder people yank God down into manageable formulas and comforting, though wildly implausible, explanations. Believing into an open, infinite God is hard.

“Oh baby,” God interjected. “I so hope you’ll grow up a bit more before you die.”

“So do I… And how would that happen exactly?” I said, somewhat sincerely. And then things came completely apart. The chains fell. Static and then silence. The call dropped. The line went dead. The station went off the air. The grid went down. My familiar body was suddenly defined by subzero isolation, white noise, and emptiness turning in on itself. Eternal nothingness. No self. No one.

“Can you hear me now?” God whispered. The words froze in the air and shattered. I forced my fists to splay into fingers and asked my bones if they still were there. The familiar rattle reassured me. I inhaled, filled what I assumed were my lungs, fell backward into oblivion, and flailed until I’d created an imperfect angel. Then I burrowed home on hands and knees, knowing the way instinctively.

“You crack me up,” God said as I emerged from my self-inflicted plummet.

I struggled for footing in a nonexistent present. “And obviously, you crack me up. But not in a good way,” I mumbled through unfamiliar lips.

“Emptiness is a good way,” God said. “Think about it. The fullness of time is the end of time.”

We sat for a while, breathing shared and splendid air. “Sometimes, I dream I’m weightless,” I said. “And I can fly.”

“Yes,” God said.

“And I can see forever and hear every beautiful sound ever made,” I said, lying.

“Nice try,” God said. “That’s not the kind of growth I was hoping for.”

“I know,” I said. “But you like it when I crack you up.”

“True,” God said. “There’s that. And I guess you realize you can’t really lie to me.”

“Yeah” I said. “But you let people lie all the time. I hate that. You don’t swoop in, smite them, or even clear things up.”

“True,” God said. “I just wait.”

“Okay,” I said. I’d had enough sparring for a while. “I’ll wait with you.”

“Promise?” God said, with a resigned, lonesome look.

The question didn’t surprise me, but my answer made me incredibly sad. “You know I can’t.”

God’s head dropped. I knew he was crying. I took him in my arms and said gently but firmly, “I can’t promise you anything, God. But I’ll try. I’ll really try.”

Perfection

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A lot of my inventions don’t work out very well, but usually this doesn’t stop me from trying again. The lure of perfection shimmers on the horizon. For example, I dreamed up a way to install window trim that would reduce cold drafts, but it turns out that this  severely complicates the process of taking down the shades–to the point of aching arms, hammered thumbs, obscenities and temporary defeat.

So this morning, with the shade half in and half out, I’m thinking about perfection. Is intention enough? Does anything fit the definition for long? Does detaching transform imperfection? Achieving perfection seems both precarious and potentially boring. Some people think God is perfect, but if there’s a God, it’s unlikely she’s boring. Is perfection an end state or a process?

“Both,” God said, slowly materializing near the woodstove. “And hey, did I slip in gradually enough this time?” She was dripping eucalyptus oil into the hot water, trying to calm me down and perhaps, dilute the odor of this morning’s burned toast or maybe the toxic fumes from the varnish I’d applied to an imperfect tabletop last night.

I nodded. “Want some tea?” I asked, my voice tight, embarrassed about the window shades and the black crusts of toast.

“Sure,” she said.

The eucalyptus was stinging my eyes. “You may’ve overdone that essential oil thing,” I said, as I put the tea kettle on the stove.

“Well,” God said. “Essence is hard to calibrate.”

I gave God a glance. “Why do you say things like that?” I asked. “You’re so obscure and elusive.”

“Am not,” God said. It was such an adolescent response I smiled despite myself as I put tea leaves in the boiling water. The scent of spearmint mingled with varnish and eucalyptus. The aroma of burned toast had dissipated, being a more transitory odor.

“So, about perfection,” I said. “Is that what you are? Is it possible? How would you define it?”

God blew across the surface of her tea. “It’s like…well…” She eased back in the rocker, looking thoughtful. “Seeds,” she said finally, glancing out the window. This hit a sore spot. An irregular layer of snow blanketed the garden beautifully, but the last few summers, that damn garden had resisted anything near perfection. Trying to address the problems had only made them worse. Things had gotten ugly. I felt a bit defensive.

God continued, trying a different angle. “Perfection lives inside perception. Perfection is not the thing itself.” But my mood had deteriorated. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” I said. “Want some toast?”

“Sure,” God said, sighing. “But no jelly.” I nodded. “And I’ll try not to burn it,” I said in a self-deprecating tone.

“Perfect,” God said with an impish grin. I knew she was joking around, but I felt like burning the toast on purpose.

“Either way, sweetheart,” God said. “I’ll eat it either way.”

Known

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“It won’t always be like this,” God said, perched high in the cottonwoods near the river. And sure enough, even as I watched, God lifted into the sky and disappeared. The wind spread a translucent blanket of snow across the field, and bitter cold blew into my bones while I fantasized flying after him. I sent what I could spare aloft and turned toward home, diminished.

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“It’s better to grow smaller,” God said, meeting me at the door with dark beer and bread fresh from the oven. I drank and ate and crawled into God’s warm chest, which is always cracked wide open.

“Why do you expose your heart like this?” I asked in a critical voice, even while I let the pulsing blood restore me. I could smell my own hypocrisy, taste my own selfishness. But I stayed anyway.

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“You’re tenacious,” God said. “I’ll give you that. But you’re not as tough as you think.”

“Yes I am,” I said. I heard the sound of cloth torn, stitches ripped, fire snapping and hungry. I heard waves crashing, thunder roaring, the shriek of fallen prey, the whimper of starvation. Stones rolled, ice cracked, rifles fired, and the earth groaned with the weight of voracious appetites and malignant neglect.

“Paint me a picture,” God said. “With lots of lavender and green.”

“All I have is this awful gray,” I said, apologetically. “And maybe a little brown.”

“Don’t lie to me,” God said.

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A broken sun climbed into limited sky. The foolish snow refused to do anything but reflect light–as if it could stay cold and drifted forever. “You have to melt sometime,” I said to the snow with an evil sneer.

“And so do you,” God said, rubbing my stiffened neck. Reluctantly, I nodded and went to the basement where I keep my secret supplies of recycled canvas and secondhand paint.

“Perfect,” God said, as I emerged, laden with a rainbow of options. I shrugged, trying to hide the awful relief, the fearsome comfort, of being known.

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State of the Union

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“I love scientists,” God said, sipping herbal tea, relaxed and open. “I just love them. They try so hard to understand, reveal, predict, and invent. Aren’t they something? Such visionaries.”

“Yeah,” I said. We sat for a while. Then I added. “You know, I’m somewhat of a scientist myself.

“Hmmm,” God said. “I don’t often think of you that way, but now that you mention it, I can see a little scientific mindedness in you. More artist, but sure, a little scientist.”

Well.

My eyebrows bent down, but I pushed them back up to the level of civil discourse. “I love scientists, too,” I said. “But doesn’t it bother you that you’re kept out of the equations so often?”

“What?” God said. “Are you nuts? I don’t have to be recognized to be present. In fact, I get a lot of exercise jogging around in equations and hypotheses. They’re great places to work out. Science-types are like moles, digging into creation. They examine air, stars, creatures deep in the sea. I love that burning desire to understand.” God paused, looking like a proud parent, and added, “I never dreamed they’d come up with the idea of splitting an atom! Wow. Just wow.”

I was aghast. “God!” I yelled, “You know what we’ve done with split atoms, right?”

God gave me that “duh” look and said, “Children take things apart, and sometimes, they can’t get them back together. It’s part of the long, long walk.” God’s voice faltered. I could tell I’d hit a sore spot, but I was unrepentant.

“It’s more than that,” I said, my voice deadly serious. “And you know it.”

God sighed. “Okay. True. Divide and conquer is a primitive strategy. Bringing things together is a more advanced skill than taking them apart.”

If I could’ve held it together, I would’ve given God a “duh” look back. But I lost it and slid into my usual slash and burn. I stomped back and forth on our concrete floor until I gave myself shin splints. I growled until my throat hurt. I punched the air. I kick-boxed with God. My heart rate moved past the aerobic range. I shouted, “We are tragically fractured, and we just keep fracturing further. Human trafficking, walls and greed, gutted landscapes, forced pregnancies, prolonged suffering at the end of life. War. Torture. Starvation. Nuclear waste. And you sit there, admiring scientists and spouting off about bringing things together?”

“Yes,” God said in a stubborn voice. She appeared to be unfazed. “Exactly.”

She sat down and took a sip of tea, trying to hide her tears. I hid mine, too. A long moment passed. Then, a cruel storm blew up, and fierce as a mother eagle, God flung her powerful, protective wings around the cosmos. My reach is maddeningly limited, but I tried to do the same.