Windbreak

A crumpled pile of receipts rests on the table in front of me. And a beer. And a list of things to do. Outside, dawn light sparkles on the frosted frame of what might become a raised bed garden next spring, assuming spring arrives, and I can lift a shovel. A green wheel-barrel with a flat tire has blown over, hollyhock stalks bend and whip, and solar holiday lights that’ve twinkled for over a year still twinkle. The tool shed door has come unhinged in the screaming wind, brilliant red flashing helplessly back and forth. This view is not the one I will have when I become molecular, reconfigured, and nearly weightless, but I’m grateful for the shelter. It will do for now.

The troubles have been thinning God down again. His head looks too big for his skinny neck. He has no appetite for violence. The drug-induced haze of belief and disbelief, bad dreams, and short lives, twist around his frame like invasive weeds choking airways God had hoped would stay open. The assumption of permanence in a brutal, impermanent, world is just the kind of folly a hopeful God might fall for. I don’t want to make things worse, so I let God sit. And God lets me sit.

I wonder if the molecular structure of a Nazi or a billionaire is significantly different than God’s. Or mine. I wonder if the molecular structures of those whose actions have ended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are similar to the molecular structures of those they’ve killed. I wonder if the wind will be able to tell the difference between strands of human humility and jagged fragments of human arrogance when it carries these remnants into the stratosphere. I suspect so. God rides this wind. God is this wind.

When we sniff the soft round head of a baby, don’t we realize we’re inhaling God? When we execute an inmate or take an officer down, the audacity is an accelerant for the fires lit by fear. The costs are horrific. I know. The receipts are scattered on the coffee table. God sometimes considers going back to the drawing board; he has lists and ideas. He has an app. He has a heart and bodies and a vision. His surnames are Evolution, Compassion. Charity. And Sacrifice. And no matter what he creates, who he marries, or which children he adopts, he’s not going to change those names. At least that much is permanent.

One of the reasons God and I drink a half-beer in the morning is that we dread the latest bad news here on this little earth. Ritual can be calming. All week, God’s been taunted, tortured, abused, executed, raped, starved, and burned alive; things done to feed cancerous egos in the names of various gods, all of which are vicious. All of which are dead. But whatever it is that God is, it is not dead. A word to the wise: Even when it’s howling, it’s best to befriend the wind.

What Makes God Sick

I sat down in my comfy place this morning to chat with God, but as we settled in, I noticed I’d left the kitchen lights on. I sighed, glanced at God, and went to turn them off. But before I got to the switch, there on the cluttered counter, I noticed the free sample of vitamins from my shopping trip yesterday, so I found the scissors, opened the packet, and spilled three extra-large tablets into my hand–dense, alfalfa green. The morning had been filled with horrifying images and tedious demands–and here were three ridiculously green promises of health and vitality. I laughed out loud, warmed some tea, brought the magic pills back to the couch, put my feet up on the big coffee table, turned to show God my stash…and of course, noticed the kitchen lights were still on.

I grimaced.

“What?” God asked, as I shook my head. I reached for a vitamin and swallowed it down, willing the vibrant green to restore my memory, increase my mindfulness, and make me whole, young, and beautiful. God chuckled, but she didn’t look well.

“I’ll take one of those,” God said, reaching toward me.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m not sharing. They might be my last hope. Besides, you can just blink yourself to beauty and youth. You don’t need alfalfa.”

“True,” God said. “You’ve got a point, there. But you don’t need it either.”

I suspected I knew what God meant, but I didn’t ask. I focused on digesting the vitamin, trying to detach from the outcomes I long for; God focused on digesting whole galaxies of compost, broken people, collusion, trashed planets, and collateral damage—byproducts of wrongheaded consciousness, fear, arrogance, and hatred.

I looked straight at God. “How can you stand to eat that stuff?” I asked. “I mean, I’m grateful, but I worry there’ll come a day you can’t handle one more bite, and your body will explode, and that will be that. We’ll be bits of God-vomit on the cosmic wall.”

“Gross,” God said, making a classic adolescent face. “That’s disgusting.”

“I know,” I said, pleased with myself. It’s not easy to get God to make that face. To witness the Eternal Vulnerability openly expressed. Such moments are vast and holy. Hard to handle.

I don’t fall on my knees. I’ve tried that. It doesn’t work. Instead, I fall on my words, circling myself with images and explanations, searching for an elaborate way out. I finally fall silent, but not before I whisper, “You win.” I hand over the remaining vitamins, go back to the kitchen to get a cold cloth for God’s sweaty head, and this time, I turn out the lights.

Letting Go

We all get our feelings hurt occasionally. Someone treats us unfairly; people intentionally do terrible things to us or to our loved ones. And suddenly, you’re plotting. The demonic forces of revenge travel around in the sewer lines of my soul, scheming ways to get even, screaming for vengeance. It isn’t pretty down there, but even so, I can spend hours exploring the byways and options, knowing full well my vengeful fantasies would lead to nothing but further misery.

Growing up in the wild west, God at my side, pistols cocked, ready to bring down the bad guys, I often heard tales of revenge. God and I would laugh with the cowboys regaling each other around the table after a round-up or a branding; the nasty horse with the vicious kick, the wily dog that ate the barbequed steaks, the ornery old cow that protected her calf with a deadly charge, head down, snorting. All shot dead. That’ll show em. Shot dead. No more dog. No more cow. No more horse.

These were funny stories, right? The women served coffee and cinnamon twists, but their laughter was far less convincing. God often refused a second cup and insisted on helping with the dishes. When that happened, I would slip away to my fort–a hollow cottonwood stump hidden from view along the creek. There’s a underbelly to revenge—fragile and deadly; I knew this even then, and I needed to curl up and push the images away. My dog, Max, would often come along.

As my own children were growing up, we had a rescue dog. She was part Chow, and she licked our hands and feet with her mottled black tongue, healing and steady. She did not eat anyone’s barbeque. She had huge guileless eyes, liquid brown and deep. She taught us about God and patience, balance and restoration. When we accidentally stepped on her paw, neglected her, or frightened her, she forgave before we asked. But she nipped strangers and followed us to work. We finally had to give her to a friend. She expanded her loyalties and lived out her happy life.

As I sit here decades later, licking my wounds alone, I can see her tail wagging from the great beyond, her eyes telling me what I need to do. “Let go,” the eyes say. “Forgive and get on with being who you are.” I lean toward the vision, and her breath fills my lungs—it’s the sort of CPR God offers when I collapse inward, drained by self-pity.

I gather what I need to gather and set out with renewed resolve. The trail is faint and rocky, but even at my age, going the extra mile isn’t so bad if you have a walking stick and the memory of a very good dog.

Placebo

God outright refused to help edit my first run of the godblog for this week. As Co-Author, that’s God’s prerogative, so I have bowed to the forces within and without and shelved the draft about death and composting until God’s in a better mood. I may have to chew my left thumb off, but I will work until at least three hundred words have coalesced into what God and I mutually agree we should say this week. I have the vague notion that God wants to focus on hope.

“Vague notion?” God says. “C’mon. Do you think the placebo effect is an accident?”

This makes me laugh out loud. God knows how much I adore the placebo effect–the authoritative administration of an inert nothingness that, by virtue of belief, triggers healing. Good medical research is designed to factor out the placebo effect. This tickles me. Faith has to be factored out because it is such a powerful force in and of itself.

Humans have evolved to believe in things. It isn’t an afterthought or a design flaw. The leaps of faith we make are sometimes comical, sometimes tragic, often pure magic. But they all point to the nature of the Grand Leaper, my friend God, whose greatest leap of faith ever was giving us some skin in the game. Giving us a say in the matter. Giving us choice. The stakes are high. Will we poison ourselves to extinction? Will we make war until there’s no one left to kill? Will greed remain ascendant and poverty continue to be viewed as deserved?

“Ah hem.” God clears his raspy old throat and hands me a cue card with the word “Hope” scrawled across the entire surface, which is sky. Which is my face reflected in all that I have. Which is you, reading. Which is a child eating a steaming bowl of sustaining gruel. That child will arise. Her name is Enough. Her name is Charity. Her name is Least Among You, and her first words are always, “Do not be afraid.” God surrounds her malnourished frame in his huge hands. The child relaxes and falls asleep, curled in the soft flesh of tomorrow. I’m surprised that such a tiny little thing can make God cry.

“It’s your move,” God whispers a little choked up. My heart skips a beat. I know it’s a trick. I take a deep breath and the right response comes to me.

“No,” I whisper back, “It’s our move. I’ll wait until she’s rested.” God grins and wipes his nose, and I add, “I know what you’re thinking. Old dog learns new trick.”  I give my own chest a congratulatory thump.

God’s grin widens until his face cracks into the full day ahead. My temporal self is sorely tempted to react and run amok, but I don’t. God will wait, and I will wait. The child will sleep.

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.

Instructions

Photo credit: Scott Wolff

God’s face will come off in your hands if you pull hard and twist.
Your own face is a fluid river. Not something you should readily admit.
The mysterious whispers from the shadows are ancestors sighing. Sigh with them.
After a hearty meal, a small bird balances on the tip of a branch. This is impossible.

If you aren’t stoned or near death, the day might seem ordinary. It’s not.
If you assume things will remain the way they are, you’re mistaken.
What you see, what you hear, what you believe–all unlikely. All contingent.
You may think you understand the ways of the world. You do not.

Your petty fears are confetti in a gale force wind. Celebrate their flight. You’ve won.
The rotten cottonwood with the eagle’s nest has blown down. For this, grieve.
There is nothing left to win or lose. Take God’s face out of your pocket. Wear it.
Use jagged stones to chew your food, and you will be briefly sustained.

Let your guard down, put your feet up. Be playful with the local delusions. Laugh.
You’ll notice the joke is on you, which is very good news. Rejoice.
Music blares into the wee hours of a morning you don’t own. Listen.
God will say unto you, “May I have this dance?” You wonder what to do. Dance.

In certain moments, you imagine that your angular finger is a twig. This is true.
When the sparrow lands to groom herself, you suspect it is the end. It is not.
Put your better ear to the ground or on the thin chest of newborn child. Say hello.
You’ve never fully lived here, but you call this place home. And it is.

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.”