To Tell The Truth

“Hello, God,” I said. “I’m glad to see you.”

“No, you’re not,” God said. “And besides, you can’t see me. You’re pretending again.”

“Ha,” I said. “I’m not pretending; I’m extraordinarily brave. I tell it like it is, and I see you as you are.”

“No,” God said, smiling. “To tell the truth, you see me as you are. Yes, in your timid sort of way, you’re brave. I’ll give you that. But at best, on a good day, you see a fraction.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Hide all you want. Bury yourself in round river rock. Roll to the sea and come back as rain. Write one of your names in the sky and erase it before anyone notices. I’m on to you, God.”

God threw back her head and laughed a belly laugh that turned into thunder that turned into earthquakes that turned into fire that burned the forest to ash, and yet…the hatching and birthing and sprouting continued in a clamorous flurry of all that might be and all that has always been. And nothing was essential. And nothing was missing except the deadly little part I was clinging to as if it could save me.

“Don’t look,” I said to God, as I tried to pry open the rusted metal box where I hide most of myself. “Nothing of interest here.” It opened a crack and I could see my inconsequential self looking back at me, pleading.

God stopped laughing and stared at her feet. She traced the grain in the wood floor with her toe. It was clear she had something difficult to say. I started crying. “It’s too late, isn’t it?” I sobbed. “I need one more life. Just one more. I’ll get it right next time, I promise.”

God shook her head solemnly and took my cold hand into her warm ones. We went to harvest the last of the carrots, me still sniffling, thinking my sorrow might generate a bit of sympathy. God, big and earthy. We dug for a while and then God paused, shovel in hand. “Lie down in the weeds and look up,” she said.

“I don’t want to,” I said, wiping my nose. “The ground is hard. The weeds have thorns, and we don’t have time for your nonsense. Winter’s coming.”

God held my gaze and sighed a long sigh that became a steady wind that became flying leaves that became fine dust. “That’s true,” she said, as she laid herself down between the rows. “Winter is coming.”

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

I smashed an old fly swatter to pieces yesterday. I was working in the barn and there were wasps on a window near me, nasty concave bodies moving in October drunkenness. I’ve been stung mercilessly many times. They seemed near their end, but I decided they needed to die. Then and there. Once I began swatting, a primal energy surged and I hit hard, with speed and precision. The threat of pain. The thrill of the chase. But the swatter was old. The webbed plastic gave way in brittle bits of faded red, leaving me with twisted wire and little else. I grabbed a scrap of cardboard to finish the job. Not a single wasp escaped, but the cardboard was disturbingly intimate. I could hear the crack of each exoskeleton as I administered death.

It is human to fear pain and death. It is human to inflict pain and death. I suspect these truths are intimately connected. When parents hit their children, they claim no delight. But power is reassuring. Forced compliance is rewarding. Intoxicating. Pain inflicted; big to little, many to one, defender to foe, strong to weak—we like to cheer for the underdog but only if the underdog wins. I admire hunters who kneel and thank their fallen prey for sustenance, but I’m troubled by those who catch and release or kill for the trophy, leaving the meat to rot.

The wind has beaten the hell out of our neighbor’s American flag, but it is still discernably there. God gave it a passing glance this morning. This made me want to ask him what he thought of allegiances to such things as flags. But I can’t ask today. God is in another space, attending the funeral of each wasp, chatting with the microbes and spiders in attendance. I declined the invitation, but now I regret it. Mercy and wisdom seem a distant hope as I watch the sleek black cat stalk rodents in the alfalfa.

People speak in similes and metaphors, analogies and opposites, creeping toward a horizon as pathetic as their pride, as fatal as their fears. Our reach exceeds our grasp, our visions cloud up, our longings are selfish and impossible. Somehow, this is as it should be. The final exam will be on compassion, not acquisition. Discernment, not dogma. Practice exams arrive daily, and the study materials are abundant and free.

There is No Why

Some people claim we are supposed to be stewards of this planet which is hurdling through space at speeds we don’t often consider. Others say the earth is ours to use up indiscriminately, regardless of how fast we’re racing through the Universe. Me? God? Today, we’re just along for the ride. I’m listening as deeply as I dare. God’s whispering in that still, small voice. It’s maddening, but that’s what we do sometimes. I’m game. God’s game. The day arrived without my asking. It will depart the same.

“You’re a little bit afraid, aren’t you?” God’s voice was gentle.

“Afraid?” I said. “Ah, yeah. Duh.  It’s not easy hanging out with you. It’s like a single-celled organism snuggling up with a herd of elephants. Like an atom in the ocean. Like I took my tongue and licked Neptune, and now I’m stuck.”

“Hmmm,” God said, distracted. “Do something redemptive. It’ll ground you a little.”

“I could try, but isn’t that mostly your job?” I paused. There’s a corner on our property that’s in bad shape. I’d need gloves, a sledgehammer, a truck, wire snippers, and ultimately fire. But no fire today. Way too dry out there. There’s a time for fire and a time for restraint.

“My job, your job, who cares?” God said. “There’s no end of things that need to be rescued or renewed. Of course, there’s an easier way. You could tell some lies, hoard some money, ruin some pristine land for a nice profit, stone someone, or shoot them in the back. Destruction and cruelty will drive the fear underground and give you a little break.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Like hitting my thumb with a hammer. Like hearing a fatal diagnosis. Like an oil slick taking down a dolphin. Like torturing a captive, raping a woman, or genocide…” I stopped with a gasp. God was writhing on the floor in pain.

“Oh, God,” I said, kneeling. “I’m so sorry. C’mon. Don’t cry.” I handed God a hanky. “It’ll be okay. I forgot how bad that stuff hurts. I won’t do those things. Or not many. Not often. Let’s head down to that corner, O.K.? We can pick up trash, and rake, and make a difference. C’mon God. I’ll let you drive the Hulk.” The Hulk is a Japanese delivery truck, one of my prized possessions. I don’t make that offer to just anyone.

God gave me a little smile, wiped his nose, and nodded. I handed him the keys. He handed me a pair of gloves. But then, he gave the keys back. “You’re not coming, are you?” I said sadly. It was more of a statement than a question.

“That’s how it will seem sometimes,” God said.

“Then why should I clean up that corner?” I said, fear rising again.

 God surrounded me with my own thin longings and murmured, “Relax, honey. There is no why.”

When for No Apparent Reason You Paint a Broken Rake

There are forces in the universe–neatly stacked wood, oranging pumpkins, stalks of hollyhocks gone to seed, fresh-cut alfalfa, twisted driftwood, cattle in the distance, air newly cleaned—these ferment my brain into dangerous effervescence. I approach the brink of God, dip my toes, and come undone, possessed by the moment that is not a moment that is full and tragic, achingly beautiful, and all that will ever be.

God is the God of mortar, lichen, and worn-away stone. God is the degradation of birth, the elevation of death, the definition color, an infinite splintering of light; wave and particle, energy and mass. God is the invasion of microbes, a dash of salt, the overweight cook in the kitchen where all is reformed into loaves that bake while the fish fry, and the fact of time is debated over expensive red wine.

“Fancy,” God says, settling. “I like what you did with that rake.”

“Thanks,” I answer, proud that he’d noticed. Yesterday afternoon, with unworthy fingers and no explanation, I had painted the tines of a broken rake. “And I like what you did with the morning,” I continue. “It’s taken me completely apart.” 

“I know,” God says. “I love you like this, all shredded and spikey.”

“Sure you do,” I say, the vertigo that is God making my eyes misfire so I cannot distinguish between inside or out, hand or foot. “Sure you do.” The crystals in my inner ear are mixing the signals. I snap the last carabiner open, and the chains fall to the ground.

“Wait,” God says as I begin to dissipate. “I wanted to give you a hug.”

“Can’t,” I say. “Covid.”

“Ha!” God laughs. “Good one.” The embrace is labyrinthian; my body folds in, flows out, reconfigures, settles, and I am ready. Again. For now. For nothing.

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.

Plagues, Pestilence, Fire, and Greed

Image credit: Aljazeera

It is terribly tempting to detach from the news. But I can’t. Protests, fires, floods, torture, gun accumulations, fascists, pandemics, stupidity, war, rape, riots, starvation—these are where the weakest live and die, where misery is chronic, where God makes her home—on the precipice of annihilation.

“I have to let them suffer,” God says as she darkens the room. “There is no other way to show you your failings. No other way to challenge you forward. But I die with them. Every single mangled body. Every single last breath. Each rotten, contorted act of injustice. I’m right there.”

“Yeah?” I say, feeling nauseated and furious. “Yeah? And are you there with the bomber? The shooter? The choke-holder? The fire-starter? The pompous politicians? The filthy rich?”

“Honey, you know I am,” God says in an imploring voice. “I know you’re angry, but you know I am.” And God’s right. I do know. That’s why I pray and swear my way through the sickening news. But it makes me crazy.

If God fully materialized, I’d punch her lights out. I’d go down swinging. If her ears were visible, I’d give her an earful. I’d look her straight in the eye and tell her she’s a failure. I might even reach for her heart, intending to pull it out and examine it with my angular fingers and ever-diminishing vision. But luckily for both of us, she’s staying safely out of reach.

“Honey, I’ve forgiven you,” she says. “And the polite thing to do would be to forgive me back.”

Forgive God for this lousy short existence? For the nightly exposure to the sufferings she could end? Forgive God for what’s happened to people enslaved, burned alive? Women abused? Children starved or beaten to death? Forgive God for the explosive human ego and the fanatical fears that are wiping us out?

“Forgiveness is an act of faith,” God says.

“Stop it,” I say to God. “You’re God. You can do whatever you damn well want.”

“I know that,” God says. “I’m fire and water. I’m beauty, compassion, blood, and guts. I’m beyond and under, alongside and within. And you need to try a little harder. You have to forgive yourself. And me. And carry on. You need to believe against the odds it will come out okay.”

“I can’t,” I say. “It won’t.

“You can,” God says. “It will.”

“I won’t,” I say.

“You will,” God says. “Like I said, forgiveness is an act of faith. And I believe in you.”

For Paula

This morning I awoke in the land of the living but someone I loved for decades did not. Her long life ended peacefully last night, and the world is emptier this morning. God wants me to edit that last line because it isn’t quite accurate from God’s perspective, but I’m not going to. From my perspective, one of the gentlest, most generous people I’ve ever known is gone, and the world is emptier. From God’s perspective, all things transform. Time is an elastic metaphor God uses to teach us about love. I don’t like today’s lesson. Love is costly and painful for linear beings.

The last time I saw her, with some hesitation, she let me hold her hand, birdlike bones covered in bruised, paper-thin skin. She recognized the warmth of my hand. That’s all. Most of her had already melted away. During that visit, God spent his time in the kitchen making chocolate cake. She and her roommates, the vacant people in their vacant chairs, still relished a bite of warm cake with a touch of ice cream.

But there comes a time when there is nothing left to relish. The curled body tightens into a perfect circle, and it is done. Finished. A life has been accomplished. The final grades are in. The eternal vacation of liquid soul has begun. But God objects again. He claims there is no beginning. No end. Only flow. And again, I refuse to edit. And I cry. And God cries.

This is the thing I like about God. He willingly gets linear and crawls right into the pain. He sobs, surrounds, and sits with me. He reminds me how many ways there are to die, and we marvel together that I have this day. This moment. That’s all.

The Mystery fractures into light. Photosynthesis begins. The Bread of Life is chocolate cake. The Living Waters of her endless kindness flow to the sea, and there the kindness shall flow again. There we shall all flow again. She loved walking on the beach, collecting sand dollars, remembering the clam digs. I wish we’d walked there more, but I’m grateful for the times we did. I see her knobby feet in the sand, her old-lady pants rolled to the knee, her face turned to the endless horizon. “Safe travels,” I whisper as the Mystery takes her away. I’m pretty sure I saw her wave.

Cerulean Blue

A while back, God asked to borrow a few tubes of my acrylic paint. How could I say no? I have an abundance of paint. He took the most exotic colors and has yet to return them. This morning, I’m working up my courage to demand that he either order replacements or return my paints. There was a tube of cerulean blue that I always used sparingly because of the magic it could evoke. I can’t say for certain but knowing that tube is missing may be the reason I’ve not touched my paints for months. So, I’m sitting here, waiting for God, planning how I’ll broach the subject.

“Just broach it already,” God says from the darkest corner in the room. I can barely see him, but he sounds present and impatient.

“Well, that cerulean blue was my favorite,” I say, equally present and impatient. “I think you knew that when you took off with it.” I’m standing my ground. God’s got nothing on me this morning. The fires are raging, the air is dense, and as usual, I’m predicting a bitter end to humanity.

The room goes blue. The bluest blue. The blue of perfect sky, calm ocean, deep lake. So blue I can taste it; I can hear it. I can feel it sinking in. My wayward hands and desolate heart are blue. My smirky face is blue. The insides of my eyelids are blue, and the claw marks I’ve made trying to escape are blue. Everything is exceedingly, abundantly blue.

“Enough?” he asks, grinning. His teeth and saliva are a dazzling blue.

Transformed, absorbed, I run with blue legs into the blue universe and throw my arms around a miraculous blue marble floating in blue nothingness. I am renewed. I will paint until my fingers fall off. I will paint with my body, my hammer, my shoes, every ounce of me. I will fling color around like confetti, and it will be God. Layers and layers of God. It will always be God.

“I still see you,” I tell God as he slowly removes himself from visibility. “I see you just fine. And I hear you humming blue. And I taste you in this beer. And I know you aren’t going anywhere. And I’m happy. But could you give me back that paint you borrowed? Please?”

“Sure,” the Blue murmurs. He hands me a bag of paints with more colors than I’ve ever seen. “Break a leg,” he says.

“Oh, good grief,” I say. “That’s what you say to an actor about to go onstage.”

“Right,” God says, hitting himself on the side of his blue, blue head. “I knew that.” But it wasn’t a mistake. God always means what he says. When God encounters headstrong humans, he often wrestles with them. They don’t come away destroyed, but they definitely limp. With these colors, I will not come out unscathed. Or even alive. But I’m okay with that. I’m going to paint anyway.

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.

Face Bugs

There are creatures on our faces that feast on cells and oils and then die because they have no body part to eliminate waste. This might be among the worst design flaws ever. Why do they dwell on our faces? Why do they even exist? To the naked eye, they are invisible. Ancient wisdom teaches that what is seen is transitory, but that which is unseen is eternal. This was before microscopes.

The same ancient sources suggest that God is very particular about his face and who can see it. In fact, seeing the face of God can be dangerous. But living on it could be far worse. I wonder if these microscopic organisms feast and die on God’s face like they do on mine.

“Um, God,” I say, scratching at my scalp (thinking about these creatures makes me itch). “Do you have Demodex on your face, mating at night, laying eggs around the rim of your pores, exploding with excrement when they die?”

“Of course,” God says. “They’re fascinating. I name each of them. Gives me something to do when I can’t sleep.”

“That’s gross,” I say. “Nasty.”

God looks straight at me. “Labeling something nasty means you’re afraid. It’s a primal, irrational response. You can do better than that.”

“No,” I protest. “No, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” God says. “Fear is the root of the problem. But fear leads to grabbing at power, which leads to lying, labeling, and leading others astray. Quite vicious. Quite sad.”

I’m befuddled. There are so many things that make me squeamish, so much nastiness…even if I somehow overcame my revulsions, I can’t see how it would help.

“Take each face in your hands,” God says. “Feel the skin, see the longing in the eyes, listen to the breathing. Layers and layers of life at work in the moment. Remember, you’re a bug yourself. A bug in a jar with holes in the lid.”

My claustrophobia hits as hard as the rest of the fears God is igniting in me: Vulnerability, insignificance, death. There’s a scream rising my throat. A howl of desperation.

“Hold the face,” God says. “Hold the face and pray.”

The alternatives are worse, so I glance at God and try to comply. In my mind, I take the jowly face crawling with hatred and look into the beady, belligerent eyes. Underneath the sheen of hatred, I see fear. My hands are on fire. I cannot find words to pray, but from the bones and ligaments of my being, a prayer arises, and my hands hold until the cold and holy silence of forever takes me entirely apart, and I am free.

“Nice,” God says in an admiring voice. “I’ll take it from here.”