Just Get on the Bus, Gus

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Sometimes I’m enchanted by words as I type them, or I lose myself in the beauty of an orange-tipped brush meeting untouched canvas. At these moments, I’m a believer. In the act of creating, the creature knows the Original Source. In acts of compassion, we connect with the Lover. A grateful heart knows the author of joy.

Other times, blinded by the lightness of being, I try to provide my own inspiration. I’ve never known anyone quite like me. This is exhausting. The dark side of knowing grabs me by the throat, and the day clangs and rattles with loose bolts, bad connections– bone on bone. The cartilage of interdependence wears away, and my brain takes false readings that assure me I’m alone. I endure the subdivisions of the infighting self, snarling like a caged lion. Dangerous.

All options are on the table. Fangs and claws, bitter deterioration. Acceptance. Inclusion. Rejection. Isolation. Hermitage or solitary confinement. Impotence or celibacy. Fasting or starving. Just when I think I have it all figured out, I paint something the wrong shade of red or find a dead mouse in the pantry, and I’m reduced to elemental forces, poisonous gases, rust and mold, birds who sing too early and too long.

At the crack of this kind of dawn, I believe that I’ve survived a list of daunting adversities, but by evening, it will be clear that I’ve survived nothing. Nothing is ever over; nothing lets go. It all comes along. I ride through life in a repurposed bus that boards passengers to the point of bursting, but no one gets off. We circle the city. Parts of me hang out the doors and windows, fighting for air, looking for a savior. I wave like I’m in a parade–a clever disguise. Will I be discovered in time?

If the answer was simple, I’d share it. I’d own it. But there’s no such thing. The unifying force of the Universe, the Cosmos, the Beyond, the Forever, is a Question with beautiful baby answers that sparkle in the sun as they evaporate. I’ve already been discovered, and I will never be discovered. I’m known but will never be known. The extent of my unloveliness is the extent of my belovedness. And my enemies? I see now they’ve been painted the wrong shade of red.

Evicted

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I’m sad to report that God is no longer living in our basement. He’s been incarcerated again. We were gearing up to evict him anyway, but he saved us the trouble. Harsh words. Incarceration. Eviction. Common words, jagged and judgmental, with a false finality that lets us think we can wash our hands of the subspecies we do this to. At least until God jumps in and goes down with them.

It seems to me that God could choose a more desirable group to identify with—but no, he has to do it the hard way. He crawls into the cage, meekly accepting severe limits on his dignity and freedom. On the outside, we sigh with relief, hoping he’ll learn his lesson.

I have to deal with our abruptly vacated basement. The residue of God lingers on everything I touch as I pack up the possibilities and promises left behind. The walls have changed from light green to mud brown. The windows have sunk so low they no longer allow in any light. All the air has been breathed at least three times, and I find somber warnings tucked in every crevice.

“God,” I say in a resigned voice. “Oh, God.” I don’t expect an answer and get none, but I keep up my end of the conversation anyway. “You found shelter here, but it didn’t hold, did it? You needed something stronger. Something deeper than a basement. Something with fewer doors.” I pause, but then admit, “I’m very angry at you. This was a pointless exercise in fear. Mutually-assured failure.”

I go into the bedroom. The closet is stuffed with the things God loved the most, but everything is twisted now. Nothing holds the shape of hope or love. Each item disintegrates with my touch, and little demons scamper like spiders from the joints and ligaments of my dismembered God. I have to sit down for a while. All the blood has drained from my day to day illusions.

Excuses come to me like angels. They fan my face and bring filtered water. This is what I need to continue.

In the kitchen, I find sprouting potatoes and moldy carrots, food from the Food Bank, and flavored coffee–so many artificial additives and outdated beliefs that most things cooked here would be toxic. My own addictions parade around, proud and petty, and like God, I am powerless to rise above the fray.

That phrase Rise above the fray grows legs. Arms. Becomes a troupe of hair-sprayed dancers singing a wicked little song. “Above the fray, above the fray, she thinks she should live above the fray.” I plug my ears and hang my head, immobilized by this damning chorus.

“Well, holy shit!” God says as he appears and shoos away the frolicking vixens. “Good thing I stopped by for the final inspection.”

I gasp. God winks. The dancers dissipate, their giggling refrain the last thing to fade.

“Gotta go,” God says. The hand he offers is bruised, with dirty fingernails, greasy knuckles, and a missing finger. We shake, and he’s gone.

On the counter, I find a hastily scrawled note. It says, “Please forward any mail that comes for me. My permanent address is The Fray.”

“Okay, sweetheart,” I shout to my evicted God. “You’re a better man than I.” And I laugh at my little joke as I scrub the tub. That’s one of my jobs—to lighten the mood while God faces the music for me. I’m pretty good at it. Walruses, sunsets, hummingbirds, and small children are better, but I’m not half-bad.

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 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.