Outsourcing

People who insist on naming God after themselves irritate me. Same goes for people who display religious icons, symbols, carvings, or statues. Wise writers far before my time called these “graven images” (not a compliment) and indicated Yahweh (not their real name) isn’t thrilled with the idea of being portrayed in such limited, distorted ways. We invent names we can pronounce and create images we can use for signaling, comfort, or torture. The names and images come with suggested donations and membership guarantees. The in-crowd will be safe. The out-crowd will go to hell.

For convenience, I call this massive, creative, omnipotent bundle of compassion, wisdom, and potentiality “God.” Short, crisp, easy to spell. But wildly inaccurate, right God?

God slides into view, a pile of sticks, a taste of tea, an imagined joke, a yoga stretch, safety. An act of kindness, vivid forest green washing through a dream that would otherwise be drab. God isn’t shy or without preferences, but neither is God insistent. I wait.

“Ocean,” God says. “Egg of magpie. Eye of newt. Opposable thumbs. Lace. Elephants. Lilies. Those who are heavy-laden. Microscope, telescope, telltale stains on a well-worn soul. Yellow. Something gleaming on the far horizon. Mercy. Hallucinations, hallelujahs, hallways leading nowhere. Everywhere.”

“Stop!” I yell. “What in the world do you mean?

God laughs. “Not sure what you mean by “world.” Remember that just beyond your definitions, a little part of me is waiting for you. But no hurry. We have forever.”

“Blue,” I said. “Warm quilts, icy beer. Old friends. Leg of lamb, bark of dog, things that frighten me. Death. Justice. Slow arrivals. Snow falling innocent and pure. The brave song of a single child. A cracked bell ringing.” I stop and wink. “Am I getting the hang of it?”

God loves to play, but sometimes the rules of the game are hazy. The fire crackles and converts the dead apple tree to gas and soot. The temperature rises. A tiny fraction of feather escapes from a small tear in my down vest and floats on currents invisible to my naked eye. It appears to defy gravity in favor of other forces as it floats here and there. Or maybe it isn’t defiance. Maybe it’s a complex expression of faith: gravity, warm air, cool air, breath, the earth circling a star we’ve named the sun.

The wisp of feather finally settles, God fades, and I know that someday I will be free and undefined. But for now, I make up rules that suit me and name things that actually have no name.

The Spiritually Disemboweled

Today, I am rightfully and terribly sad because nice white adults who would rather live in a democracy are being fired upon, herded, overtaken, terrorized, and killed by a vicious dictator. Likely by the time you read this, the death toll will have reached 1000—maybe far more. And in that same timespan, 30,000 children (mostly not white) will have died of starvation or malnutrition in so-called developing countries. And the poisoning of the planet will have accelerated. Those tanks are not powered by the sun.

My own children are grown and well-fed. At least for now, I live in a democratic republic and can freely express myself. My little corner of the globe is stunningly beautiful. On some days, I am grudgingly grateful. But often, my good fortune makes me want to spiritually disembowel myself. The dentist assures me my teeth look fine, but I think she’s lying. Deep in the night, I imagine I am gnashing my molars down to the gum.

In times like these, God often asks, “Do you want to believe in me at all anymore?” And I say, “Well, yes and no. Mostly no.” And God nods understandingly and pats my head. I yank her arthritic hand away. “Save it for someone who needs it,” I say. And she says okay and sits there on the orange couch waiting for me to realize I am among those who need it. I consider the utter impossibility of believing in anything and the emptiness of believing in nothing, and I grab the vacuum and run it around the living room like a madwoman. This is funny because I hate vacuuming. God grins and plugs her ears. I’ve always suspected she hates vacuuming, too, but with God it’s hard to say. The invention of the vacuum was supposedly a step toward liberation for enslaved womenkind.

I drive the vacuum straight toward God. She is easily pulled in, traveling down the hose in a lump. For a moment, I feel victorious but then, horrified and alone. I turn the vacuum on myself and down I go, right into the dusty arms of the ever-present, ever-waiting God. “Help!” I shout. “I can’t breathe.”

“Stay calm,” God says and hands me an N95. I mask up. Masking is an act of love. What does it mean to love my neighbor? What does it mean to love myself? What does it mean to love creation? It is a dirty, sad, imperfect process–often thwarted or violently opposed–but the alternatives are so much worse.

Naked in the End

You will be happy to know the accent wall is now midnight blue, the ladder-backed chair rescued from the dump, lime green, gold, maroon, and yellow, and though my life has not gotten noticeably better, I used recycled paint, so there are five fewer dented cans awaiting resurrection in the basement. They are empty. I’m happy. I’m drinking the leftover Malbec wine for breakfast, but I would prefer dark beer. We must all make sacrifices.

Among the things set free by the storm last night are five rotten cottonwoods, one majestic willow, and twenty-six irrigation pipes rattled loose from their line of duty and sent tumbling dangerously through the darkened sky. Those of us left behind have accepted the fact that we will not be able to save the planet by ourselves. The wind has agreed to help but at great cost. Millions of unwilling children have lined up along the shoreline hoping for food. The tide will rise and take them. Their elders will follow. Millions of other species have unwittingly signed on for extinction, simply by being themselves—ugly, simple, and in the way.

For a while, we will fight to save the pandas, the owls, and the wealthy; the beautiful and those who make us laugh. I, for one, will write words infused with angry sympathy for those born into suffering, born with few options, those who then hate, radicalize, and destroy. The war games continue.

I kick at the shins of God, trying to wake them up. This cannot be the Original Intention. I am a foolish Cinderella. They are a flimsy Prince Charming. I am Jack. They are the Giant. I plant magic beans. They are the purveyors of binder weed and quack grass. I install solar panels. They are the sun and patchy morning fog. They are the good witch, the man behind the curtain, the placebo effect. They are a modest chemical reaction, and we are atoms splitting, cloaked in a thick shawl we’ve drawn over our shoulders, thinking it was pure merino wool. It is not. It is denial. I have considered freezing to death instead of protecting myself with lethal and selfish lies. When souls stand naked in the end, truth will be the only shelter. Not power. Not possessions. Not beauty. Not brilliance. Truth is always grounded in humility, compassion, and sacrifice. Sometimes, to practice, I wear clothes thinned to threads by others and endure the brutally cold light for as long as I can.

Inertia

Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. This morning, both God and I are disinclined to change momentum. My feet are warm, my coffee hot, the view familiar. God is hurtling comfortably through space in his version of a Lazy Boy recliner, planets and stars aligned just so. I have no need to bother him. He sighs and settles deeper, ready for a nap. We are both at a loss to explain this uneasy contentedness. It’s not like we’ve achieved perfection. In fact, most efforts toward perfection backfire; thus, by being at rest, maybe we are making progress. And besides, stillness is a mirage. Even if God nods off, digestion continues. Neurons fire. The heart beats. The cosmic clock ticks, and the train leaves the station for parts unknown.

Two years ago, we bought 16 fluffy chicks. There are nine hens left. We gave away the five whites. A racoon got one of the reds, and I killed the rooster. It was self-defense. I was scattering food, unarmed and inattentive. I turned, and there he was, talons bared, eyes sparking with deadly malice. He flew at me. I beat him back and yelled, thinking that would take care of it. He regrouped and attacked with even greater resolve. My benign superiority was replaced with rage. How dare he come after me again? I put my hood up to protect my head, grabbed both of his stringy legs, and whirled his body in the air, using his weight as momentum to smash his head into a nearby cement block. It took three full circles to finish the job. I have few regrets.

My plans for the future include working hard to leave behind sustainable shelter and healthy garden soil. I’ve taken to writing notes to the children of the future, hiding these missives in places they might be found a hundred years from now. A hundred years. A very long time from the perspective of my fingers on the keyboard. Barely a passing twinkle in the eye of God. Barely a twinkle. But for now, God dozes open-mouthed and innocent, and I hold myself faithfully quiet. God needs the rest, and I need the façade of stillness to welcome the coming day and accept the overwhelming complexities of being momentarily assembled in the form I know of as myself.

Preparing for Guests

Not long ago, God and I were kneading dough, trying to time things so the smell of fresh bread would greet our guests at the door. Homemade sourdough is one of my staples, and I wanted to impress these acquaintances with my earthiness. I had a hunch they were our kind of people.

Most of us need a few homies; a posse, an inner circle of those who know us well enough to hold our fears and failures–and reveal their own. Recently a chunk of our inner circle fell to the forces of mortality, and the wound is still tender, keeping me acutely aware that anyone can fall at any moment and no longer be. God puts the dough in a cool place to slow the rise. She gives me a knowing glance. “You’re ambivalent, aren’t you?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “There are days I think it’s best to be disconnected. Less risk. Less pain.”

“Slight correction, if I may?” God says. “What you mean is that the illusion of being disconnected offers a bit of respite, but…”

I hold my hand up. Mercifully, the Center of All that Is and Isn’t, the Author, the Plot, the Weaver of the Tapestry, the Queen of Connection stops talking. I know where this is headed. I know about Oneness, and I know about loss. Many’s the time I’ve tried to make God understand how it feels to be on my side of the perpetual falling away, but God only sees it as falling into, not away. I think that’s callous and naïve. God thinks I’m tiresome and unsympathetic. So, once in a while, to show God how hard it can be, I sing to her–usually James Taylor’s Fire and Rain–and she cries a little for our sakes. But being the thing we fall into is also hard. She borrows Paul Simon (himself, a borrower of ancient hymns) and sings to me.

“…I’ve often felt forsaken, and certainly misused. But I’m all right, I’m all right. I’m just weary to my bones. Still, you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant so far away from home, so far away from home.”

And I cry a little for her sake. The best homies remind us we aren’t home, and the wisest among us realize there is no home, only the lonely journey and the shared and cherished resting places. Most dreams have been driven to their knees, but it’s all right. It’s all right. Even when exhausted, God kneels alongside the dream. And shatters with the dream. And sings.

The oven is ready, the table set. We will break bread together, drink leftover wine, and in those rare moments, we will bravely partake of a singular and temporary joy.

Pick-up Truck

At the present moment, I readily admit I’d rather spend my time shopping online for a reliable used pick-up than hang out with God. Existentially, I know I’m not alone in this preference.

To be clear, I don’t mean just any pick-up. I want a humble, road-worthy little pick-up that will take me anywhere I want to go. Sadly, these are rare. In our current culture, driving a small, fuel-efficient pick-up has become a direct threat to one’s sense of superiority, a signal of submission to bigger trucks, a failure to flaunt one’s flagrant, entitled use of all things petroleum.

And I don’t mean I’m avoiding just any God. If I could find a God who would answer my prayers for a dependable rig, that would be one thing. But the God who shows up most of the time rides shotgun without regard for vehicular prestige or utility. Of course, there are times I like driving around with a good shotgun-riding God. But other times, I want a God who will take the wheel and get me what I want right now. And I want it sanctified, guilt-free, and easy; a blessing from a God who bestows blessings on those who deserve them. Like me.

If I had a little pick-up, I could buy big things and haul them around. I could load up furniture I no longer like and get rid of it. I could throw a sleeping bag in the back, drive anywhere I fancied, and take care of myself. I could escape into thingness, dislocation, and the illusion of having the right-of-way. I even imagine finding an offramp that turns me and my pickup around to give us another run at life.

If I had a God who would agree to be my Security Detail, my Bouncer, my Getter and Doer—a God I could prop in the corner to scare away the heathens and inferiors, wouldn’t that be nice? If I think of it that way, I could be God’s God.

“I don’t need a God,” God informs me in a gruff voice intended to disguise amusement. I’m neither startled nor dismayed. I grin sheepishly, my mind caught in the cookie jar of fantasized omnipotence.

“Uh, hi God,” I say. “Good thing you dropped by. It was getting a little crazy in here.”

“No worries,” God says. “There’s a pandemic of crazy going on. How about we quarantine together? I’ve got a couple of ventilators if we need them.”

“Sounds good,” I say. “I’ve got reams of bamboo toilet paper.”  Shotgun God slaps his thigh. Bouncer God lets people in. Cardboard God starts a fire, and I stir the cauldron of soup and feed the sourdough starter some nice, fresh flour.

When the Choir Preaches Back

Sometimes I count my blessings; sometimes I count my years, and though I don’t like admitting it, sometimes I count the number of people I think of as willfully, proudly ignorant, and my mood sinks. But as dawn arrives and light asserts itself, my despair dissipates into benign speculation, and I am among the billions awaiting transitions no one can explain. I watch God in the fire and in the lines of frost across the windows evaporating directly into air. I watch God peacefully protesting greed, misogyny, and cruelty. I imagine my grandchildren and their grandchildren carrying genes across the great divides of life and death, and I am both stricken and intrigued. What could I possibly do to lessen the burdens and reduce the suffering to come?

God emerges gentle. Always gentle. Always sacrificial. Always self-assured. Kindling for the fire. Moisture for the frost. God surrounds me, stone tools, dead branches, herds of deer, flocks of sparrows, and a holy stillness in which I can rest. I don’t want to rest. I am aware of how easily I will break and burn and disappear. I want to speed down the runway and lift into a sky that will leave me unbroken and unchanged.

“If you reduce the suffering, you reduce the joy,” God speaks in everywhere voices. “If you take away the burdens, the bones soften. The understandings recede and the cost rises.”

“Hello, Old Friend,” I say. “Let’s not fight today. I won’t disagree or complain or act as if I know anything at all. Instead, could we fly? Could we walk through fire, find the garden, and open the gates?”

God laughs and lifts a million arms in praise. A multitude of God begins to sway to an inescapable beat; a galactic choir robed in sunrise crimson bursts into a seditious version of the Hallelujah Chorus; I’m not Mormon or Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, Jainist or Hindu, or anything defined beyond my tenuous friendship with God, but as I sidle up, my Friend throws a heavy velvet robe across my shoulders, and I join the altos. We sing the truths of repeated defeat. The roiling ocean of human sorrow buoys us up, the crashing waves, a steady percussion section. Hundreds of soaring sopranos lift off and take the high notes with them, but like spring, they promise to return.

On Being Mean and Hateful

“God, why is being mean so damn gratifying and easy?” I asked from the depths of a very bad mood.

“Because you’re angry,” God answered. “Anger is like a heat-sensing missile. It scans for a target. Once zeroed in, it feels good to release that toxin and blow things up.”

I chewed my thumbnail and said nothing. Questions came to mind, but I didn’t want a sermon. God can be so redundant. Blah blah blah, forgiveness. Blah blah blah, compassion. Blah blah blah, self-sacrifice. It gets old. Aren’t we built for survival? Aren’t we meant for greater things than washing windows, vacuuming, hauling other people’s garbage, and groveling? Why are there winners? Losers? Why is war seductive? Entertaining?

“Don’t answer!” I yelled as God opened his mouth. He closed it and softened into a smiling grandmother with shining black skin, plaited silver hair, and big white teeth. I watched her Mona Lisa smile warily, and my eyes narrowed to slits. “Get away from me,” I said.

She dipped her head and softened into her younger self, supple and innocent. I glared and declared, “I don’t know you.” She bowed her head and softened into a little boy with a baseball mitt and a dream. I shook my head menacingly and frowned at his wistful face. His eyes held mine as he softened into a naked baby kicking in the sunlight that poured through my unwashed windows.

This helplessness sickened me. Complete and utter vulnerability, displayed without a shred of pride or self-consciousness; arms waving, legs kicking, holy drool slipping down the sides of those fat cheeks, landing where new planets will someday emerge, perfectly round.

I backed away. “Don’t make me see, God. Don’t make me old or poor or weak,” I begged, staring down at the infant. “I want to play nice in Eden with very pretty people. I want to be fully understood and adored just as I am. If you’re God, you love me, right? So you can do this. I need a shortcut. A yellow brick road. A red carpet.”

The baby hardened and cracked into fragments of granite, jasper, onyx, and light. The earth beneath my feet was no longer firm. Yoga instructors always say to notice the earth supporting me, but it had become shifting sand. I covered my nose and mouth and dropped to my knees. “Ah, fuck,” I muttered. “I don’t want to deal with myself.”

“You surprise me,” God said from the pile of broken stone. “I thought you were tougher than that.”

“Like I have a choice,” I said, as I turned my face toward the voice.

“Exactly,” God said. “Like you have a choice.”

The Meek

“Here’s the question,” I said to God. “Why would the meek even want to inherit the earth? After the unmeek are finished pillaging, what’ll be left anyway?”

Three distinct snow devils twirled by, and then a vicious wind blew the remnants of the last storm across the garden, blurring my view. The weather patterns have begun to express earth’s outrage at its tormentors. The meek stand at the far end of the long arc of justice and there’s no pot of gold awaiting. Only diminishment and misery.

“Interesting question,” God said. “Could I get a couple of scrambled eggs? The brown, free-range ones, if you please.”

“Why?” I asked. “What’s the point? You’re not hungry.”

God shrugged and made his own eggs.

And here’s another interesting question,” I said with some irritation. “Why is nature so exquisite? Elephants. Apple trees. Caterpillars. Orchids. Translucent baby mice, huddled in their circle of pink, bones so tiny they could be eyelashes. Wild skies. Bengal tigers. Wheat fields before harvest. Fire. Ice.” I paused, caught up in the complexity and splendor of it all. Then added, “and why are humans so destructive?”

God ate his eggs, nodding and smacking his lips. “These eggs were fertilized,” he said. “Circle of life and all that. Tasty. But this toast is questionable. I think your flour has gone bad, and I think I’d like some ice cream.”

I sighed. The wind had died down. The air was clean, my vision unimpeded, my flour rancid, my questions mostly unanswered, and for some inexplicable reason, my soul was at peace. A cold snap was rolling in, but we had enough wood. I vowed to have more faith next time and buy less flour. But I bake a lot of bread.

“Survival is a complicated, temporary equation, isn’t it?” I asked God as he zipped his down coat, wrapped his neck with a wool scarf, and pulled his rabbit fur hat down tight. I didn’t expect him to answer, but he did.

“Yes and no,” he said. “On one side are the essentials: Compassion. Humility. Sacrifice. On the other, well, you figure that out.” He took a long lick of what appeared to be licorice ice cream and added, “It may involve delight.” Then he slipped out the door to the west where joyous and majestic mountains rose to greet him. There were snowshoes strapped to his back.

The Harder Truths

“God,” I lamented. “It’s seriously cold and I’m sad.”  My old friend had died in the night, brave and private in his decline. I rubbed my hands together, trying to warm them. God watched me, face impassive. I continued. “You know I hate being cold.” I was feeling sorry for myself. Too many losses. Too much grief. Deep freeze cold makes me insecure, achy, and painfully aware of mortality.

God didn’t seem inclined to do anything useful, so I got a blanket. She watched as I draped it over my chest and wrapped my feet. Then she said, “Most of you secretly want your mommies when you’re cold, hungry, frightened, or sad, don’t you?”

This seemed less than kind. I glared. Said nothing. God went on. “But not your real mommy. You want an imaginary celestial being who understands how hard things are. Someone to fawn over you, feed you, assure you of your incredible worth, make false promises, and tuck you in, safe and sound, every night.”

I wasn’t enjoying these revelations, and the blanket wasn’t helping much. I shivered and looked away. God continued. “Oh, I know you sometimes arrange to be tucked in by surrogates, but even if they give you warm milk, dim the lights, or stay and snuggle, they aren’t what you long for. They can’t save you from yourself.”

Why on earth was God saying such things? I’m not all that demanding. I don’t think I long to be taken care of—at least not all the time. Is a blanket too much to ask? Overall, I’m relatively independent, nearly a prepper, minus the guns. I have two outhouses, a pantry, solar panels, wood stove, tons of rice, and an attitude.

God sat big in the middle of my brain. I sat uneasy in the presence of this God, apparently determined to say things I didn’t want to hear.

“Being grown-up means you put yourself to bed at night.” God said, as if ending a sermon or an inspirational talk.

I was not inspired. “No,” I wailed. “You’re wrong. You’re there. I know you are. And there are others. The ancestors. The nymphs and gnomes, the weak and strong. My beloved. My children and the children in such despair. Such need. They all go to bed with me. And we sleep. And we wake up. And we hope. And we believe as best we can.” I made these shaky declarations between ragged breaths, my hands fisted, ready to slug it out.

God took the fists and blew warm breath on them as they unclenched. I looked up and saw that God was crying, too. We flung our arms around each other and let the tears drip into the vast and rising darkness where the souls of the dearly departed wait to tuck us in with a strange and certain warmth.