It’s What’s for Dinner

Yesterday, I borrowed my sister’s horse trailer to salvage some old lumber, but things did not go smoothly, and the trailer arrived home well after dark. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s shipping season; she needed to haul calves bright and early today. We unloaded recycled boards with flashlights, and at dawn, I went back to use a magnet to search for rusty nails in the crusted manure. I didn’t want a distressed calf to end up with a nail in a hoof.

When I sit down with my co-author to await the alchemy that produces words, I’m often pulled toward thousands of unnecessary things to do, but picking up loose nails was necessary—an effort to avoid small suffering in the face of huge suffering. Even though it meant facing a cold morning, I’m glad I found and removed those nails.

But that was that. Now it’s time to write, and the familiar battle is on. Mind and body at war: Mind wants to settle and focus, but body gets up, stares at the baked goods, waters the spider plant, paws through the fridge for a corked half-beer, and meanders back outside to check the temperature and admire the sunrise. The bawling of distraught cattle is thick in the air.

I come back in and sit. A housefly buzzes the coffee table, executing dives and turns that I admire, even as I hate and detest the fly. I start to chew my thumb for inspiration, but the odor of cow poop stops me cold. I’d forgotten to wash my hands. At the kitchen sink, I find last night’s dishes, so I scrub a few of the pans. I grab a fly swatter on my way back. Of course, the fly disappears.

I sit again. My mind is calm. I am not moving. I accept the lowing of bereft cows and the frantic calls of their disoriented calves, destined to be fattened, slaughtered, and eaten. I live in this particular world. I accept my role in the brokenness.

When the followers of Chuang Tzu asked him how he’d like his body disposed of, he replied it mattered not: Eaten by the birds of the air or by worms in the soil. Such is the journey of the body. In the grand scheme, we eat and are eaten.

“True,” God agrees, joining my thoughts, hands folded in his lap, large and calloused. “But I must say, some of your fellow beings get a lot fatter and sassier than others. And unlike the endings brought about by hunter or slaughterhouse, many deaths are neither swift nor humane.”

I nod. One of the most haunting images on the nightly news is the emaciated woman, nursing a stick-thin infant. She sits listless, her eyes and the baby’s eyes dull, unregistered. Neither will ever be fat.

With clean hands, I offer God a croissant. He declines.

Protective Gear

Sometimes, I deliberately write from a darkened place because as those who dabble in God are painfully aware, there is such a thing as too much light. Even with safety goggles, a hard hat, and an emergency whistle, it’s impossible to feel entirely secure in the presence of what might be God. True, there’s a chance it’s something other than God, but it is not to be trifled with. It is Vast and Elsewhere. Holy Restraint. Indeterminate Destiny. Fool-proof Finality. It is Allah, the Tao, Enlightenment, Sacrifice. It is lamb and lion, gnat and nature—the fertile valley that floods with some regularity causing everything to die and be reborn.

Pure light burns through stupidity to the heart of all selfishness. The razor-sharp fangs glisten, and there’s a roar that makes Niagara seem like wind chimes in a gentle breeze.

Maybe God doesn’t realize her own strength or what it means to be first and singular, unadulterated and unmitigated light, but even a sideways glimpse can overwhelm me. I slip off the rails of rationality, my train of thought crashes, and the flammables in my soul ignite. It takes enormous effort to get to the river and douse the flames.

I, for one, do not appreciate how this feels in the morning. The advantages of denial are obvious, but the comfort there is limited. When I was a child, I feared the coming apocalypse, assured that the end times would be filled with fire, terror, and remorse. Then I grew up and realized that time is always ending, and there will always be terror and remorse—fire, hunger, and upheaval–but there will also be moments of wonder and inexplicable joy.

For instance, right now, as the days shorten and the chill of imminent winter asserts itself, the lion has laid its head on my shoulder and draped its body across my lap. It is a wild thing that loves me. My eyes close. The giant paws massage my sore muscles. Night is coming and cannot be stopped by my incoherent prayers, but…

I am reminded of stars.

Burgers

“God,” I said. “In order to believe in some absolute form of you and thus be falsely assured of a thin, exclusive salvation, a lot of people have silenced their hearts and blinded themselves. You’re aware of that, right?” God rubbed his forehead and looked out the window. I continued.  “They put basic truths through mental meatgrinders, make up twisted doctrines, call this faith, and hang together in paranoid groups, ignoring the obvious and applauding the hateful.”

God drummed his fingers together and used his sleeve to wipe his nose. The tears were real, even if God isn’t always real. The idea of absolute has the same problem as the idea of the perfect quilt when it’s chilly, the day free of duties or doubts, possessions that need no maintenance, the weedless garden…. Absolute is a nice idea but in our small slice of temporary reality, there’s no such thing. The quilt has lumps. The day has worries. Things break down and end. There may be no weeds visible, but just under that dark sheen lurk roots and seeds patient and tenacious.

In time, all things show their fault lines–their contradictions, inadequacies, hypocrisies, and failings. But what if we could move out of the constraints of time? What if fault lines are passageways?

God wavered and disappeared as he often does. “Come back,” I commanded in my bravest voice. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Enlighten me. I’m wondering if anything is absolute, and I don’t have all day. Or maybe I do, but I like you best in the morning.”

“Why?” God asked silently.

“Not sure,” I said, happy to be back in dialogue. I often chew on my left thumb when God and I visit. Today, the thumb tasted like soap because I had just washed yesterday’s dishes, and I’m not great at rinsing. I swallowed the soapy taste. “You seem fresher. More possible.”

Still no visible sign of God. “Oh, I’m absolutely possible,” he said from nowhere. “All day. Late into most nights.”

With that amorphous assurance, I put myself in motion; hung the laundry, took out the trash, wiped some dusty surfaces, touched a couple of my favorite rocks, scrubbed three fat carrots that grew despite the weeds, combed my hair, found my phone, took some vitamins, and packed the car for a trip to town.

 “What do you want to do for lunch?” I asked God, politely ignoring his absence.

“How about burgers?” God said, chuckling.

“Or not,” I smiled. I don’t like burgers. God knows this. And I absolutely know God knows. And that’s what made this reassuring. And very funny.

Certain Realities

“I hope you don’t think I’m real by any of your standards,” God said, with a worried look. “It could set you up to be pretty judgmental.”

“Well, actually, I do,” I admitted. “On occasion. But not without reservations.”

“Fair enough,” God said. “I think I can help clear this up. Let’s talk about omniscience. Infinity. If you started counting out loud right now, it would take 31 years to get to a billion. And that’s just one little abstract billion. I mean, I don’t blame you for trying to reduce me to something you can comprehend, a set of easy answers, a source for whatever you think you want–but I’m beyond your gray matter, excuses, threats, formulas, and numeric systems.”

“Sheesh, God,” I said, running my hands through my wayward hair. “Could you just shut up for a minute? I don’t need this right now.”

“Sorry, but I think you do,” God said. “Bear with me.”

The kindly old gentlemen sitting across from me leaned in, stroking his beard thoughtfully. Santa Claus? Everyone’s idealized grandfather? Before he diverted to this ‘I’m not real’ sidetrack, we’d been talking about the trials and tribulations of being the kind of person I am. I’d been on a roll; confident I was convincing him to see things my way and help me out.

But he’d turned the conversation sideways. “With your current instrumentation, you can detect about two trillion galaxies in what you call the universe. Each galaxy has about a hundred million stars.” He paused, and in a tender voice, added. “I know them all by name.”

I tried to do the math. Stars. What’s two trillion times a hundred million? The wonderments and limits of being human blew my brain up. I grabbed at the shards flying everywhere, hoping to pull myself back together.

“Give it up,” God said. “I love you best this way.”

“What? All discombobulated, overwhelmed by the incomprehensible, creative web of whatever you are? Uncertain of what matters in my littleness? How to be of use?”

“Yup,” God said. “Exactly. It’s Otherness that troubles you. Let go of your crazed images and false guarantees. Don’t try to shape me based on your need for power or reassurance. Nothing defines me. I am Beyond.”

I felt lost and enraged. I thought to myself I might as well kill God off and go it alone. The kindly gentleman handed me weaponry and said, “Be my guest, sweet earthling. You wouldn’t be the first.” He raised his hands in surrender.

But the thought of dealing with a decomposing God stopped me cold. What would I do with the body?

“That is one of the problems, isn’t it?” God asked, quietly. “And it’s worse than you imagine.” He lowered his arms and drew me in. “I’m your inner albatross. An old dog sleeping in the warmth of your soul. Internal amputations are tricky, especially when you’re unsure of what to cut away.”

God’s New Job

“Hey, I just landed a job as an aerobics instructor,” God told me this morning, flexing his biceps. He struck a pose that accentuated his ripped thighs and taut butt. “Minimum wage, but it’s a union job with full benefits.” He was beaming. I was speechless. He continued. “Don’t look so shocked. It’s spiritual aerobics. We’ve been working on this idea that with the right music and attire, we could motivate humans to get their souls into better shape. Can you imagine a nice pair of Lulu Lemon leggings for the spirit?” He rubbed his giant hands together. “Now, that would be sexy.”

Occasionally, my job is to pop God’s bubble. Big ideas shimmer in the early morning light but they are transient. “God, darling,” I said gently. “You have some very creative notions, but…”

God interrupted with a toothy grin. “I knew you’d be a skeptic. I think pairing examples with music might do the trick. See, if I’m up front, and I shout something like bite back that sarcastic comment, swallow your pride, give beyond what you wanted to give while I jump around, it’ll look easy. I’ll make the heavy lifting of telling the truth appealing, and we can show people how they can increase their flexibility by offering the coats off their backs—all part of a good workout for the overweight ego.”

The thought of obese egos trying to keep their pulse rates in the optimal zone made me laugh, but I was unconvinced of the overall appeal even though God was ridiculously enthusiastic.

“I’m gonna convince people to try high-energy benevolence, to crawl out on some shaky compassion limbs. We’ll play the right tunes to inspire a few high-stakes sacrifices.”

“Sounds dangerous,” I said, a small knot forming in my stomach.

“Oh, totally,” God said. “But your job is not to stay alive as long as possible; your job is to stay as loving as possible. Get that soul in shape. Death is not elective, but cruelty is. It’s healthier to die trying to help than it is to live fat and sassy off the labor and poverty of others.”

I imagined my spirit in red spandex with an ivory sports bra. God smiled approvingly and turned to the drummer materializing in the kitchen. “We need a cosmic pulse,” he said. The drummer nodded, dreadlocks springing into action. She had multitudes of eyes and hands, and there were more snare drums than stars. Creation throbbed with the joy of now and the sorrow of wasted time as the walls dissolved. A blur of angels and devils leaped onto the dining table, guitars already wailing, hips gyrating. God handed me the bass. “Carry that bottom beat, baby,” he said. “Let’s rattle some bones.”

Shelter from the Storm

We are all a long way from home, dithering and dallying, trancelike automatons until something small or large loosens a stone in the foundation. Lost, but not completely lost. Found, but not yet found. Half-heartedly seeking what Bob Dylan called a lethal dose of salvation. Always a little messed up, though occasionally well-intended. For instance, I didn’t mean to leave the rice in the microwave overnight or the fish on the counter. I didn’t set out to drink all the cold brew and not start the next batch. But mea culpa—these are among my many thoughtless mistakes, and I hereby offer myself conditional forgiveness. I tell myself You’ve got to stay focused. And I add Straighten up and die right. Or is it lie right? Or fly right?

“I prefer fly right,” God says, settling in on the couch beside me. “And who put you in charge of forgiveness?

“Well, I’ve always assumed it was you,” I say, “And it’s a hell of a job.”

God smiles sympathetically and rifles through the mail, lists, receipts, masks, and rubber bands on the coffee table. I sit quietly, hoping for a bit of advice or assistance. My recent efforts to be more organized have fallen woefully short. The demons of distraction are delighted as I try various methods to get centered: Deep breathing (smoky air); beer (disorienting); garden (needs weeding, watering system not working); sticky notes (they lose their effectiveness when they’re everywhere). Lovingkindness meditation (too hard). I’m full of excuses and self-pity. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

“I wish I lived somewhere that forgiveness wasn’t even a necessary thing,” I say.

“Hmmm,” God says, absorbed in a sale flyer for energy-efficient window replacement. “I doubt it.”

And to top things off, the Text Predictions function in Word has suddenly turned itself on. I hate Word guessing at what I’m trying to say. I hate automatic updates. I hate passwords. I hate warring search engines. I hate smoky air, suicide bombers, drought, rice in the microwave, weeds in the garden, turkeys in the straw, refugees in the ocean, people willing to infect each other with viral hatred, flagrant ignorance, and this long and winding road that always leads me here. To the here and now of an ever-eroding present tense. I’m a child of the 60s.

That prophetic Beatles song locks down in my brain. “Don’t leave me waiting here,” I sing to God. I think I’m being funny, but God and I choke up. The Long and Winding Road was their last number-one single in the USA. So fitting. The unattainable. The end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end. The wandering is the journey. The trying is the failing. The failing reveals grace, and our last job is to die forgiven.

“I do know how hard it is, honey,” God says. I nod. We sit, staring out the recycled windows at the waning but beautiful garden.

The Dance

Sometimes, I don’t get along with the co-author of this blog all that well. We argue, give each other the silent treatment, and land low blows, but then we usually find our way to uncomfortable compromises. It isn’t exactly quiet desperation, but close. We’re like the gruesome twosome in the couples counseling literature—together for the long haul, though there are days it isn’t pretty. Arguing with God is a thankless task and there is scant evidence it does much good, but what are the alternatives? Eat curses and enemies for breakfast with loaded guns across our laps? Slide blithely toward extinction? Give shallow thanks for our short-sighted blessings, imagined or real? Die alienated, resentful, or afraid? No.

For instance, this morning I say, “Hear my prayers, oh mighty and all-knowing God.” (I only start this way when I’m in a certain mood.) “I implore you to move most of earth’s population to other planets. Provide everyone with birth control, shelter, and nutritious food. Let the artists do art. Let the lovers love. Let the earth recover its incredible balance. Disable all weaponry. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Amen.”

My co-author responds. “Hear my suggestions, oh puny human,” she says. “Feed the hungry. Provide shelter and comfort to one another. Limit your offspring. Visit those who are ill or imprisoned. Give cheerfully and pay your taxes willingly. Elect rulers with integrity and compassion. Stop relying on that which is nonrenewable. Stop using poisons and short-cuts. Stop using weapons. Stop acting like you own the place. You’re just passing through. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Selah.”

Our longings are similar, but we disagree about who’s responsible. Many of us can’t even carry a tune. Who should take the lead?  

“Not me,” God says. “I’ve already given you all you need.”

“I don’t think so,” I say.

“Of course you’d say that,” God says, in a firm mother’s voice. “You’ve made a royal mess. Clean your room.”

“I would,” I claim, shamefaced. “But I don’t know which one’s mine.”

“Doesn’t matter,” God says. She hands me a dust cloth, a mop, a broom, knee pads, a toolkit, water bottles…

“Stop!” I say, “I already have all that stuff.”

God grabs a can of oven cleaner. “Then let’s get going,” she says. “I need time to practice. I’m combining tap with some exquisite break-dance moves for my next performance.”

This is a great motivator. I love watching God dance, her muscular body supple and yielding, her hair snapping like lightning. Sometimes, she invites the universe to be her partner, and spectacular forces shape themselves to her. Sometimes, she dances solo. Either way, it is magnificent. I gather rags and rubber gloves, and away we go. I’m not sure what, but something will be shiny clean by noon.

Wildfires

We evacuated a few days ago. God refused to help sort what to take but rode along in the tiny spaces available in the car and winked at me as the fire officials at the station explained that the wind had shifted. The fight was going another direction. If we took the back roads, we could go home. As we turned around, God disappeared and I was glad to see him go, even though his absence is as much of an illusion as his presence. At least with him ostensibly gone, I could avoid thorny conversations for a while.

Who wants to talk with the God of fire during an evacuation? The God of suffering, loss, and apparently random events? It never goes well. The book of Job for example; an elongated poem, a chorus of voices and views, Yahweh and Satan in a cosmic pissing match, Yahweh’s praise of evolution, and a lesson in pointlessness. Sure, there’s the veneer of a happy ending, but not if you realize it will all end again. Who wants to lose everything twice? Thrice? Forever?

“Do you think the key is to have nothing to lose?” God asked as I sat by the window, breathing smoky air, waiting for another evacuation notice. I didn’t mind that God had swung back around. He was better than the meager offerings on Roku.

“I don’t know about that,” I said, scanning my accumulations; books, art, a sheepskin rug, my yoga mats, special rocks, blue glass, a cedar jewelry box filled with trinkets, a stack of incomplete gardening journals (we start a new one every spring). Of what consequence would their loss be? Little to none. Of what consequence has my life been? Or anyone’s?

God nodded, noncommittal. Listening. I grieved and tried to be brave about it all. I wanted to imagine I was of great consequence; something other than one of the trillion dominoes God has gleefully lined up, waiting and watching to see what might set off the next run, gently drumming his fingers, offering substantial odds to anyone willing to bet against him. I wondered if I could step out of line. Redirect the future of my particular genetic strain, remain standing, and win.

“Of course,” God said. “Be my guest. I like winners.”

“But I thought you liked losers,” I said. Conversations like this give me vertigo of the soul. Winning isn’t definable, and I don’t actually know what kind of consequence I want to be. It’s risky business to have God along in an evacuation because no matter what you take along, God knows what you’ve left behind and will circle back. God always circles back. This may be a good thing, but I’d rather have the promise of perpetuity or at least a direct way home.

What God Thinks is Funny

Out of nowhere, the pouty voice of God declared, “Most people don’t appreciate my sense of humor.” I managed to look interested rather than startled. God continued, “…and they rarely get my sarcasm either. You people are too literal.”

This seemed unfair. How, exactly, are we supposed to recognize a cosmic joke? Or respond to a sarcastic God? Sarcasm is a defensive, often insulting manner of getting a laugh or hurting someone.

“Why would you even want to be sarcastic?” I asked.

“It’s cheap and easy,” God said. “Good way to cut someone down to size.”

“Ah, c’mon God,” I said. “You seem a little off today. What’s up?”

“What’s up?” God mocked. “What’s up, God? Why is this happening, God? Bless me now, God. Make us another planet, God. Clean this up, God. Give us one more gold metal so we know we’re better than the communists, God. Make my day, God.”

“Well, someone’s a little grumpy this morning,” I said. “Bad night?”

“Bad night?” God said. “No night. Never night. No rest. Not the plan. The seventh day, I was going to chill. I said it was good and tried to relax, but no. It wasn’t entirely good. It was mostly good, but I missed a few details. My bad.”

God beat her chest and shook her wild hair loose, the demons screamed, and the world rolled like a bowling ball down the alley of a galaxy with trillions of exquisite pins quivering in hot anticipation. The impact promised to be utterly spectacular. An ending unheard of. Unimagined. Untenable. Acting on instinct, I threw myself across the expanse, gasping when my body hit the cold hard surface of nothingness.

“Nice try.” God’s voice was warm, approving. I was too dazed to respond. I just stared. “No, really,” God added. “Nice one.” She held up a rating card with a 9 on it and said, “Now let’s warm you back up a little.” She led me to the fire. I was naked beyond bone, floating without form. The small things that had tethered me to what I thought I knew glistened like gossamer. It didn’t seem possible to hold on anymore.

“Easy, there,” God said. “I think we’ve had enough for now.”

I rallied. “Oh, you think so, huh?” I crossed what would have been my arms if I had arms. I was not going to give up that easily. I’d just thrown myself across the abyss, hadn’t I? “Hold my beer,” I said.

God cracked up. Tears rolled down her wizened cheeks as laughter nudged the earth back in place. She laughed so hard that the demons paused in their misery and the angels in their dancing. And I managed to laugh a little too. I knew the joke was on me, but I laughed anyway. God and I have found that this is the best way to handle situations like this. Laugh. And then leap again.

Rake Handles

Painting our shovel handles industrial yellow worked out well, but dark green for the rake handles was a mistake. I used to hate being wrong, but I’m more patient with myself now. I have red paint. I can fix it. Then, we’ll be able to see those handles hiding in the grass and be far less likely to step on the tines or lose the rake for months on end.

“Of course, there’s always the option of putting the rakes away after you use them,” God says with a laugh. I sneer. God continues. “And on the subject of mistakes, I’m getting more patient with myself, too. Perfection is a shifting concept—a process. Without mistakes, there are far fewer ways to learn.”

“Oh, I get that,” I say. But inside I’m thinking yeah, and what about people who won’t admit their mistakes? The people who believe they know more than the experts? The people who willfully destroy the earth? The people who put others at risk by not taking basic protective measures?

“You win some, you lose some,” God says. “You can quote me on that.”

I smile dubiously. I doubt I’ll be quoting God on that or anything. I am sick to death of supposed God quotes thrust at me through social media by people I know to be incredible hypocrites. And yes, we all have our hypocritical moments. That’s the thing about perfection. It brings out the worst in people.

“Sure is smoky,” I say.

God nods, rubbing her eyes. “Yeah, and hot as hell,” she adds.

I raise my eyebrows. God gives me a sly look and nods again. “Like I said, without mistakes, there are far fewer ways to learn. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

“God,” I say. “You scare me when you talk like that.”

“I know,” God says. “But I can’t help it. Fear is one of your bigger mistakes. Hatred is another. Paint those red and put them away when you’re not using them for the good.”

She sounds stern, but she opens her arms for a quick embrace. “The seasons don’t arrive at exactly the same time every year, honey. But they always arrive. You can’t stop them, and you shouldn’t try.”

“Can I quote you on that?” I ask, facetiously.

“No need,” God says. “Everyone who’s anyone already knows. And the rest won’t listen anyway.”

“That’s what it seems like,” I admit. “But you aren’t giving up on them, are you?”

“Never,” God says. “But I’m glad you asked.” The quick embrace is now a bear hug and God kisses the top of my head and for the briefest of moments, everything is holy. And perfect.