When I was a child

Sandstone

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 Burden of Autonomy

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God and I are organizing my mom’s memorial. God keeps writing rhyming poems and trite drivel. This surprises me. One might think God would be a more free verse sort of entity.

“Why are you doing that?” I ask. Rude, perhaps, but this kind of writing seems so constricted and sentimental.

“What’s an uplifting word that rhymes with death?” God asks, chewing on a pencil, ignoring my question.

The word comes out unbidden. “Breath,” I say with a frown.

And then I cry. For three days and three nights, her body breathed on. Brain stem at work, they said. So we waited, and read to her, and sat by her, and combed her hair, and rolled her body gently to and fro. We talked, watched football, played music, and sat. Sat with life as it fought to hold on, sat with death as it waited with us.

She would not have wanted to die that way, but then, she didn’t want to die at all. She wasn’t one to give up. Ever. Her favorite saying was, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Obviously, she wasn’t Buddhist.

“God,” I say. “Why did you keep her alive those last days?”

“I didn’t,” God says, surprised. “She did. You did.”

I shake my head but I know it’s true. God looks on while we ignore basic quality of life issues, and invent ever more life-prolonging machines, medicines, and treatments, and provide them selectively to those with resources. God looks on while we starve and murder, deny help, and blame the poor for their conditions. God looks on while some people rake in millions of dollars as providers of interventions, medications, or insurances, and others go bankrupt trying to save a loved one.

If God fell from scaffolding and broke up his body, would Worker’s Comp fight to minimize the costs of his rehabilitation? Would we deny him Medicaid? If God slipped on the marble floor she was mopping…if God got cancer as a child…if God…

God interrupts. “I did not invent dialysis, chemo, or the electric chair. You did. I don’t set bones, prescribe blood pressure medications, or do CPR. You do. I don’t distribute food, goods, or services—nor do I withhold them. That’s all you.”

“But what about “thy will be done” and all that?” I ask. “Aren’t the fortunate fortunate because of you? Aren’t the rich rich because you blessed them? And the healthy? Isn’t it your will for people to live as long as they possibly can?”

God’s eyes roll and she makes a gagging sound. “No,” she says, steely-eyed. “Absolutely not. I’m sick of being used as an excuse. My will is, frankly, for you all to get a clue. You’re so self-absorbed and short-sighted, I have to repeat myself endlessly. Mercy. Justice. Compassion. Self-sacrifice. Translate those, would you? Your finite lives are your own. You have autonomy. You have choices. Stop blaming me.”

The weight of human prerogative pushes the air from my lungs. I have no reply.

“Breathe,” God says. “Breathe.”

Seven Onions

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Today, I harvested the last seven onions, but the beets and carrots can wait in the dark autumn dirt a while. Frost only makes them sweeter. There’s a chill in the air. I wore my mother’s jacket. She died three days ago, against her will, but in the end, peaceful. That damn body betrayed her–the one she’d shoved into high gear every morning until it gave out. As I signed the papers, I knew she wanted that body burned to ash and flung into the wind–the same wind she knew as well as she knew the neighbors over the years–but I cried anyway.

I am in mourning. God has flitted in and out, respectful but adamant as I rail against her awful ways of doing things. The ways of God. The ways of God. What does that mean?

God is trying to be a soft barrier between me and despair. I prefer despair. God strokes my hair the same way I stroked Mom’s as she lay unconscious, her spirit moving slowly up the other side of the ravine between life and death. I push God’s hand away, angry and ashamed.

“Don’t do that,” I say.

“Okay,” God says. She tears up with me. “I loved her too, you know.”

I nod, reluctant. “I know. But you have a strange way of showing it.”

God nods. “The birds have started migrating,” she says. “I suspect another brutal winter is on the way.” I frown. The unstable shelter of the seasons is little comfort.

I look into the craggy face, the sad eyes, and realize that for God, this might be the hundred-millionth brutal winter. For God, everyone is dying, their bodies transforming, their warm, frightened souls flowing to where they will be known and welcomed. I want to know how. I want to know why. But God’s face is etched with a kind of wisdom I’m not ready for. I look away. Instead, I look to the hills. They are my oldest friends. I trust them. “Take care of her,” I tell them. “Make sure she finds her way.”

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.

 

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.

God Goes Microbial

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There are two kinds of people, three kinds of narrative plots, four seasons, five fingers, and fifty ways to leave your lover. But there’s only one of you, right God?

“No,” God said. “That doesn’t work for me.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “And your multiplicity, untethered creativity, unfathomable magnitude…these don’t work for me.”

“Yeah, I know,” God said. And we sat for a while.

“There might be water on one of Jupiter’s moons,” I said, making the kind of small talk I thought God might enjoy.

“Yes, I heard about that little discovery,” God said, feigning polite interest. “Would you like to go there?”

I thought for a while. “Probably not,” I said. “I’m going to plant some corn tomorrow, and I’d like to see how it does this year. We had a problem with our soil last summer.”

“Okay,” God said. “That’s fine. I’ve been feeling a little microbial anyway.”

“Microbial?” I said, narrowing my eyes. This is one of the many ways God makes me crazy. Shifting from planetary to cellular. Reminding me we’re not just surrounded, we’re invaded.

“Let’s stop talking, okay?” I said. Even though God co-authors this blog and is, generally, one of my main sources of inspiration, I wasn’t up for her antics . “You freak me out. Death freaks me out. Being human is harder than you seem to remember. Meaningless lives at my elbow. Suffering sometimes stays the night. How am I supposed to cope? You aren’t much help, you know.”

“I know,” God said. “Do you think it would be better if we’d never met?”

“Maybe,” I said. “But we have met, and I’ll remember that until, well, at least until my mind goes. You’re memorable, even in your haziest forms. Even in your fleeting appearances. Even in your gut-wrenching truths. Even in your damn contradictions and cosmic jokes. Even in your silence, your absence, your failed experiments. Oh, yeah. You’re memorable, you no-see-’em, no-name, no-limits, infinite Beyondness. Maddeningly, mystifyingly memorable.”

“Glad to hear it,” God said. “And you’re memorable too.”

“Fine,” I said, and made a guttural growling sound. “Want to help me in the garden?”

“Sure,” God said. “Thought you’d never ask.”