Aerobics

On road trips, it is important to adapt. I just finished hopping around for 30 minutes in this guest house, urged on by a British man and two scantily clad women on YouTube. As is often the case, the women were silent, but they kept the beat. God sat on the edge of the bed, observing this ritual. My upper arms will be sore tomorrow because I do not routinely wave them around like that. I prefer the treadmill or the great outdoors.

“You’re always welcome to join in,” I say to God, as I wipe sweat droplets from the floor.

“Kinda busy,” God mumbles and turns to the map of the world on the wall.

I follow her gaze and feel the familiar plummet of significance. Not counting disputed regions, for now there are 195 independent (and artificially defined) nations on earth, populated by over seven billion of us. None exactly like me, but all of them a twinkle in God’s eye and a pain in God’s neck. All of them a whisper. Each of them a vision just out of reach.

“Remember,” God says. “The map is not the territory.” I do remember. Albert Korzybski, a Polish-American thinker, said that a century ago. Wise man, but still. Maps are something, right?

I grab my jacket and invite God along for a stroll in the park with the puppy and me. “Already there,” God says. I knew that, but I thought I’d ask. The proportionality of God is the issue. The map on the wall is a flat reminder of a round planet in serious trouble. Many of the flags along the bottom include red. I hold out hope that bleeding isn’t necessary, and weapons are not the final answer.

God sighs. “You left the key in the car and the car unlocked last night,” she says. “Might want to lock up on your way to the park.”

“Might not,” I say. “I like it when nothing happens.”

“Right,” God says with an eye-roll. “Your choice. A safe car is not a blessing. A stolen car is not a curse. Just so you have that straight.”

Of course, I don’t have that straight. I’m human. I manufacture imaginary blessings like that unstolen car all the time. “Sure thing,” I say to God with false bravado. “I get it. You had nothing to do with the car being safe.”

“That’s not what I said,” God says. “It’s just that I hate riding along in stolen cars, but I won’t blame you if that’s what I need to do. I’ll ride. I always ride. Even when it’s only a minor traffic violation, not a stolen car.”

“You ridin’ black or white?” I ask.

“Black,” God said. “Black and male. If they shoot me, call my mother, will you?”

I’ve not spoken with God’s mother for a while. I nod. “I will,” I say, imagining the cosmic grief the call would inflict. “But do you have to take such risks?” God gives me a disappointed look. “Yeah,” she says firmly. “Yeah. I do.”

Black Holes/White Flags

Once upon a time, God appeared in the living room and walked straight to the wood stove, extending his hands toward the fire. He seemed chilled and uptight. After a while, he gave me a half-eyed glance and in a choked voice said, “I sure hope I’m the kind of God you write about.”  Mystified, I mustered a reassuring smile.

Another time, God blew through the top of the cottonwoods, a holy howling terror, uprooting trees. Powerlines sparked and whipped like snakes. She pounded her chest, lifted skirts, and inverted the umbrellas intended to thwart the rain. “You will not stay upright,” she shrieked across the expanse. “You will not stay dry and there’s nowhere to hide.”

I hid.

God peeked down into my hiding place. “Sorry,” she said. “You can come out now.”

And then there was the time it drizzled miserably for days, and my sad friend told me she was dying, and the only God I could find was a four-legged critter that appeared to be a dog. God did some tricks, jumped on my friend’s lap, licked her face, and for a while, there was joy. Muted and resigned, but joy.

I slipped outside. Children were splashing in a threatening puddle. One of them kicked off bright yellow boots and squished black mud between her toes, barefoot and triumphant. I watched from the sidelines, silently cheering her on.

I’m remembering these times this morning as I sip a very stale beer—a gift from a stingy God who gives me leftovers–less than I think I deserve. But waste not, want not. And besides, what does deserve have to do with it? Is love earned or bestowed? Is it passed along or is each scrap absorbed into the black hole where nothing is ever enough and time itself has no meaning?

“Good morning,” God says, appearing beside me in stylish clothes. “Can I have a sip?”

“Sure,” I say. “It’s awful.”

God winks, tips the bottle back, swallows, and it’s gone. The beer is gone. The day is gone. Light is peeling off the walls, and I’m falling in.

“Help!” I yell to God as I dangle. The full weight of my body is too much.

God brings an umbrella and yellow boots, a dog, and a fresh beer. But I can’t accept any of it because I need both hands to hold onto the gravelly rim of my small reality.

“Let go,” God says.

“I can’t,” I yell back.

“Of course, you can,” God says, and kneels to loosens my fingers, one by one.

Managing Distractions

(Illustration from my book “When Baby Corporations Come To Play”)

During the next 22 minutes, I hereby resolve to sit in a soft purple chair facing out into my personal chaos and not move anything but my fingers. Warily, my body will relax; my thoughts will filter through a maze of urges, accusations, poetic phrases, and old jokes. Most likely, I will revisit yesterday’s indignations instead of remembering recent joys.

God will appear in fits and starts. She’s as subtle as the noisy microwave and the insistent hum of the cheap refrigerator I’m enduring for the sake of the planet. Or so I say.

I let myself love the pinkening of the sky, even though the pink is fleeting, and my love will go mostly unrequited. The sky does not have time to love me back for very long.

God moves freely around the room. She is interested in the ways lime green and pumpkin orange can change a life for the better. So am I. She seems fascinated with the ease and strength of torque screws, the ticking of old-fashioned clocks, the dangerous games people play in their minds, and the lyrics. And I do mean The Lyrics. The One Song. Sometimes, I sing along but I make up my own words. It’s safer that way.

At heart, God is a rapper. She claims she’s still writing relevant verses. I doubt it. What does she have to offer the gamers and the insistently ignorant? The magnificently greedy, the already generous? Or me, for that matter? And why do I think there should be a set of lines I can understand? As if that could save a single hair on my waning head.

Each minute is a minute unto itself. Round, perfect, weightless. I want to crawl into one and float away, but they burst like bubbles when I touch them. They take no prisoners, allow no passengers, and mercilessly disappear. All I can do is admire the flawless roundness, and shape myself to the circling earth, as if I, too, were a moment in time. Enough but empty. Complete but hungry. Irridescent, transparent—a shade of blue that only God can imagine.

It’s time to leave the soft purple chair and move into the falsely ordinary shards of the day. “Farewell,” I say to each of the 22 minutes, my voice tender and sad. The sky has given up on being pink, but God is still puttering around, admiring whatever she has in her hands as if nothing has slipped away. “Want to go for a walk?” she asks. I lift the skin on my face into a smile and look into her eyes. “Sure,” I say to the Eternal, the Great Intangible, the Path, the Lover, the Rapper, the Generator of the Splintered Now. “Sure,” I say, standing and ready. “Let’s walk.”

Coexistence

Our mousetraps often spring in the night, catching hapless rodents intent on eating our oatmeal or the crumbs from dinner. It always wakes me up. I hate the whole process. We diligently search for the entry points and sometimes seem to stem the inward march, but their skeletons flex, delicate as bird bones. They seem to materialize out of thin air. We see the gray flash or hear the dreaded scamper, and another round of trap-setting begins.

Some skirt around the traps. Others nibble so delicately they’re able to take a few bites and execute a temporary getaway. Some are miserably caught by their tails and drag the trap around. Others die from a clean crack across the neck.

Outside, the cats and hawks are always ready for another meal, so I understand the motivation to find a way in; warm places to nest and tasty scraps to glean. But these comforts are brief and fatal.

“Brief and fatal,” God says with a nod.

“Well, hello, Mr. Echo,” I say. God’s presence doesn’t unsettle me so much anymore. Besides, I could use a distraction. I’m working on my Advanced Directives with a Dementia Addendum. I wave the sheets of paper at God. “Want to serve as my witness?”

“I am always and forever your witness, honey,” God says. “But my signature isn’t worth a plug nickel.”

I’m not sure what that idiom means, but I like it. It was a favorite of my mom’s. “You’re pretty funny,” I say.

“I know,” God says. I turn to give God a smile, and just then, we both hear the snap from under the bench. I flinch. God says in a voice laden with irony, “And another one bites the dust.”

I start toward the trap, but God gets there first. “I’ll take care of it for you,” God says. I open the door. Twilight floods in, a dark liquid that will eventually dissolve my feet. I try to be brave.

So, so gently, God lifts the twitching mouse.  Joins the twitching mouse.  Becomes the twitching mouse.

And I am the hapless witness, briefly bereft of my fatal comforts, wishing such infusions of wisdom didn’t take so long.

A host of earthly beings surround God’s body, now peacefully still in the garden. I put on my coat and boots and go out to lie down beside my fine-boned God. In the steel gray sky, an eagle circles, sharp-eyed and majestic. The wingspan alone is beyond comprehension.

Change of View

I often wonder what inspired God to get into the business of creation. It’s obviously a work of love, but there are so many booby traps embedded along the way. The lack of smooth sailing for any amount of time suggests negligence. Or distractibility. Or inebriation. Literal and figurative landmines blow up innocent people, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust.

“So, Intelligence-Who-Sets-Things-in-Motion, what do you have to say for yourself?” I ask. I’m not in a good mood. We just moved ourselves from one condo to another. I’m tired.

“Good morning to you, too,” God smiles.

I sit breathing quietly, letting the smile of God wash over me, bringing both relief and the usual touch of terror. My watery eyes take in the new view through a different set of sliding glass doors. Last night, we slept in the old place, but this morning, I dragged the coffee table, frying pan, and my favorite cup to the new place, and here I am. Awake. With toast. And here’s God, smiling. And here’s the morning, arriving without apology, under the weight of so many newly dead, so many starving children, so many imprisonments, so many billionaires. I turn off the news, vaguely ashamed of myself. Angry at the capacity of humans to justify their self-serving, violent, deluded choices.

God is doing a silly dance around the boxes and displaced furniture.”Creation is my middle name,” she says. “I love trying out new ideas. I love diversity.” She pulls a bucket of sunglasses from behind her back—the lenses are densely colored–green, red, pink, orange, blue, black, green, purple—but none are clear. “Try them all,” God says.

“No thanks,” I say. “I’m retired.”

God laughs. I blow my nose. The new skyline is both urban and wild. I remember a defiant peace sign on the lowly hills. The majestic Mission Mountains are north of here, out of view, but close enough to feel their power rising. Peace signs come and go. Even mountains don’t last forever. They face erosion unafraid, taking comfort from flocks of noisy crows and the vast truth of sky.

I give God one last accusatory look and uncross my arms. “Okay,” I say. “I’ll try purple. But take the orange away. I’d rather see clearly, but if my vision is going to be tainted, I appreciate having a choice.” God hands me the purple glasses and sets the orange ones on the table beside my stack of masks.

“Thanks,” I say, halfhearted. God nods and hands me a beer and my vitamins. “Work up to it,” she says. She’s smiling again. Her cheerfulness, like the massive track lighting in this place, seems a bit much. I’d like a little less light.

Is you is or is you ain’t?

For the past 45 minutes, God’s been following me around while I fuss and mutter my way through the large piles of rocks in our house. It’s time to clean and sort. Smooth, thin, striped, white, broken, odd-shaped, heavy, pointed, round, speckled, flat, agate, sandstone, granite, petrified wood. I’m blessed with an inexhaustible supply of rocks. It’s awful. Blessings always come with a dark side. In this case, I have to sort and judge my rocks. Which stay? Which go? Sheep or goat? Precious or plebeian? In or out? Evil or good? Worthy or worthless?

I’ve been lazily indiscriminate about rocks, but there are limits. Life demands at least some discernment, and as we all know, discernment easily slides to judgment. Humans have many sayings about this.

  • One person’s treasure is another person’s junk.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. …And of course, there’s this one:
  • Do not judge, or you too will be judged. In the same way you judge others, you will be judged.

I hold an amber crystal and a friendly river rock in my hand, overcome with doubt. What makes anything or anyone precious? What makes anyone or anything worthless? Who or what belongs anywhere?

God sighs. His jazz band materializes and sets up in the kitchen. God positions himself on a stool, and in his sultry, seductive voice, begins singing that old Louis Jordan classic: Is you is or is you ain’t my baby? He sips bourbon. I’m afraid he’s planning to light up a cigarette. Clearly, he’s in one of his sarcastic moods. I briefly consider throwing the bum out.

The mood fades. The band packs up, leaving the kitchen littered with peanut shells and shot glasses stained with oily lipstick. God lingers and watches me clean. He’s smiling. Humming. Waiting. I’m a little put out, but God has cleaned up after me more times than I can count. And he’s always done a stellar job.

He’s unpredictable, unruly, unjudgable, stereotype-proof—but whatever God does, he does well. I know because I have a memory of perfection. An infinitesimal fraction of me was present when God and his jazz band crooned the Universe into being; when stars burst out of their atomic skins, when the planet I call home began to cool. In fact, we were all there—which puts us in the same boat—which makes judgment futile.

I wash the last glass; God sweeps the floor and opens the north facing window to a blast of late-November air. I endure the chill while I search through the rocks. I’m on a mission.

God laughs. “I don’t need a rock,” he says, accurately reading my mind.

“I know,” I say. “But I’d like to give you something anyway.” I feel nearly desperate to find the perfect rock.

“Okay, baby,” God says. He holds out his hand.

Downhill

My downhill acceleration is alarming some days, but I reduce the gravitational pull by using switch backs and sensible shoes. God is one of my better switchbacks. She decreases the angle of decline and therefore the risks of freefall. Even though she refuses to make anybody immortal, she doesn’t mind being used as a switchback. Life on earth is unpredictable; sometimes brutal, sometimes disappointing, often too short, on occasion, too long. It is a brief opportunity to practice being kind.

I’m watching a couple of male deer lock horns in the snowy field, but I’m their only audience. Wisely, the females are focused on breaking through the crusty snow and grazing while they can. Sheltered in place, I like the visibility of dirt in the vacuum and the splintered wood with tough knots and gnarly twists waiting for the fire. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Day to day. Hand in hand.

On the other side of the pell-mell race that will never have a winner, the shimmering Now is a breakfast of excellent coffee, a blueberry scone, a vision beyond my nose, and the kind of silence that holds no threat. No demand. No promise. No direction. Only an abundance of breathable air.

God has moved into view carrying my best boots. She kneels and helps me slip them on. She’s shoveled a path through the snow that leads toward a certain horizon, but I linger over my scone. “Don’t make me move,” I beg God. “This might be the last blueberry I’ll ever taste.”

“Yes, it might,” God agrees. She pulls my snow pants down over the boots and tightens the drawstrings at the bottom. “And it might not.” She pats my thigh. “Either way will be fine.” She points to the hills and begins to die the thousand deaths required of her every day. She’s running a temperature, struggling to breathe, and there are gaping holes in the ozone.

On 9/11, the passengers on Flight 93 decided to bring the plane down rather than let it crash into the White House or the Capitol. Passenger Todd Beamer was recorded saying, “You guys ready? Let’s roll.” With whatever they had at hand, they stormed the cockpit. Right now, the cockpit is filled with plastics, poisons, hatred, and greed.

“Breakfast is over,” I say to my well-clad feet. “Let’s roll.”

We Have No Sheep

Any minute now, God is going to show up with a new tattoo. He calls them Prison Ribbons. Medals of Honor. He’ll be revving a stolen Harley. He’ll be broke. If arrested, he will be killed.

Any day now, God is going to knock meekly on the outside door, waiting to be welcomed in. She will be crying. There are things too painful to bear alone.

Sometime in the afternoon, God is going to hear someone praying to win a soccer game, begging for help with an obstinate child, asking for healing, or relief, or just one more day, alive on the planet.

This evening, God is going to corral the sheep for their own safety. There’s been a mountain lion sighting. Even the dogs are nervous.

And me? Oh, I’ll be friendly enough. I’ll do some weeding in the garden. Bake some bread. Read. Think. Write. Plan. Argue. And I’ll wait. That’s the hardest. The waiting.

Unbearable, unthinkable companion, could you wait with me? Unload the guns? Unpack the anger? Could we dismantle our fears together? Maybe we could examine our jagged little pieces of hatred and throw them in the river. They won’t skip, but over the eons, they’ll smooth into gleaming stones.

I want to build a translucent wall of agate and quartz that everyone can touch—the living and the dead—the livid and the lucid and the lame—the wayward sons and daughters of a very wayward God.

But I find myself chewing my thumbnail, drinking my beer, rocking in the recliner like the old fool I’m becoming. I want to buy a donkey to protect the sheep. We have no sheep. We have terror, borrowed time, and limited vision but, as of this moment, we have no sheep.

The Not God

The Not God stops by frequently and introduces herself as if we’re meeting for the first time. I play along. No need to upset her; she’s lonely and vicious. I offer the same cookies, coffee, beer, and fruit I offer Real God. The Not God refuses with a condescending comment about her restrictive diet. This makes me want to eat like a voracious pig, stuffing my mouth so full that crumbs fly like gnats every time I chew. I doubt many of us welcome visits from the Not God, but they happen. Shit happens. The Not God happens. I curl my hands into fists under the table, extending my middle finger. In my head, I sing “Eff you, Eeeeffff you, oh yeah, yeah, yeah.”

This helps.

But the Not God ignores social cues. She’s so full of Not Self, so sure of royal status, so human. She exists at Absolute Zero. Not fluid or spirit. Solid, jagged, arrogant, overjoyed by the apparent demise of all things bright and beautiful. In her spare time, she writes video games and mini-series with endless carnage, but her main source of income is discord sown generously in ground made fertile by fear and greed.

Her harvests are plentiful.

The Not God often stays the night, insisting on clean towels every morning. She’s working on a trilogy and uses our internet even if we aren’t home. She might be a bot. She might be Russian or Chinese. She has refused to fill out the census paperwork, won’t open the door, and screams at children who cross the lawn. Childhood is an irritation. Old age disgusts her. She wears expensive perfume.

She smells of death.

The Not God dresses up in fancy formulas, promises, and guarantees. The Not God baits and switches. The Not God has a lot of drunken orgies, discount sales, and prayer breakfasts. Give her a nod, she’ll take your head. Give her an inch, she’ll write you into the trilogy or turn you into an avatar that avenges her imagined slights. She assures you she’s the only one who knows you.

She lies.

The Not God wants to be God in the worst way. She longs to sit on the throne issuing commandments. The fantasy of judging the quick and the dead is orgasmic. Addicted to power, she preens in the mirror and carelessly exposes the dark places we try to cover. She has a lot of money. Quite a few guns. And millions of frightened followers that she plans to eat someday—from the inside out. But as Real God gently reminds her; that restrictive diet of hers makes a final feast unlikely.

Exceedingly unlikely.

Influencer

“God,” I said to my coauthor, “we need to try and appeal to a younger audience. Maybe we shouldn’t focus on disease, death, plague, poverty, and pestilence so often.”

“Ya think?” God said. He’d stopped by in the guise of distinguished looking diplomat, trimmed beard, clear blue eyes, three-piece suit. Trustworthy. Then, just as he sat down, he aged into a very old man in baggy clothes, legs bent to the chair like sticks, vision clouded by cataracts. “Stop worrying that pretty little head of yours. Come give me a little peck on the cheek,” he said. “There’s smoke in the chimney, fire in the belly.” He jiggled his torso. It was repulsive. What in the heck was God up to? After a couple of lurid winks, God morphed again. She leaned over me, sweet cleavage burbling out of her scant bikini inches from my nose. She smelled of sunshine, youth, hope, and laughter—utterly delicious. “How’s this?” God asked.

“Mirror, please,” I said. God handed me a simple mirror, and I turned it on her. “Oh,” she gasped. “I forget how beautiful I am sometimes.” Then she turned it back on me. Given my 66 years, pajamas, and wayward hair, I did not have the same reaction.

“So you want a younger audience, eh?” God said. I pushed the mirror away. “Why?” she asked, not unkindly. She slipped a beach cover over her perfect shoulders.

I thought about it. Why would I want a younger audience? Why would I want an audience at all? I don’t even like people very well. “Influence,” I said hesitantly. “I think you should be a social influencer, and I’m willing to help.”

“Thanks,” God said with a wry smile, “but I can handle it. There are so many idiots, zealots, fanatics, and frightened people speaking for me, explaining me in formulas, thinking they have a bead on who I AM, I don’t really need any more help.”

I tried to be thoughtful, but God could see my feelings were hurt. She added, “Sometimes, sweetheart, diminishment amplifies the truth and lets the light in through the cracks.” Diminishment? The old Shaker song, T’is a gift to be simple got into my head, and as I hummed the tune, God grew large, black, and soft, and I relaxed into the familiar comfort of the unknowable. Her name was Diminishment. Her name was Truth.

“Why do you come by?” I asked.

“Why do I love you?” God asked back.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s your only viable option.”

“Nope,” God said. “It’s a choice, and it happens to be the best way to influence anyone. Ever.”

In this vast land of fear and loathing, we hunkered down and snuggled. Then God packed up the mirror and left, taking most of the available light. She left me a little. Just a little. But I think it will be enough.