Settling

There are short-lived truths that go sour, longer truths that offer comfort but eventually wear out like a well-loved quilt, and eternal truths that hide among the bulrushes, debts, and sanctuaries. Physical punishment or harsh words will stop unwanted behavior in its tracks, but the motives will dive underground and propel from below.

“Ok,” God says, “Then grace is like a shovel.”

Your offspring don’t own you, and you don’t own your offspring, and we are all the offspring of many. Boundaries are a constant negotiation, but we trundle along, fostering and adopting, breaking and healing, astonished and befuddled; the urges and joys of reproduction writ large.

“Of course,” God says. “My image in the darkened glass.”

There are forces that undermine balance, reduce generosity, and recast restraint as shameful. The meaning of enough is flattened by trucks exceeding the speed limit. Avarice can be dressed up to look like self-care, and acquisition is a seductive master, a damsel in distress, a mirage of power.

“Yes,” God says. “And forgiveness is a home-cooked meal.”

Fear is a natural response to the threat of pain, death, or humiliation. Belligerence is also a natural response. Hatred is the venom produced by fear and belligerence. The poison flows both directions—outward and inward.

“True,” God sighs. “And the antidote…”

God’s voice fades. I lean in, hoping God just needs to clear her throat or something. God is going to say the antidote is love, right? Or maybe compassion, or courage, or sacrifice? Silence reigns. No singing river. No chattering birds. No traffic. No wind. Not even the distant opening or closing of doors.

“Is this it? The antidote is nothing?” I think to myself.

“Noooo,” my inner self protests. I realize I’m dangerously close to settling for a short truth, even if i know it will grow bitter with time, even if I know it will lose its shape like cheap underwear. As long as it disguises the taste of the poison in my mouth–I don’t care.

I look straight into the vibrant universe and hope for a reassuring word.

“Sorry,” God finally says. “I’m all out of platitudes.”

“I don’t mind,” I say, thrilled that God has spoken. “I can handle that. Have a nice day.” I chuckle.

“You crack me up,” God says, laughing. We stand face to face, our foreheads touching, eyes closed, breathing. Then we link arms and walk to the garden to plant a few more marigolds among the rows of kale.

Hair

Human hair is fascinating. We’re not nearly as furry as our ancestors and cousins, but we still sprout the stuff. Left alone, it signals everything from how old you are to how well you slept last night. But of course, we don’t leave it alone. We cover it, color it, play with it, yank it out, let it sluff off, implant, extend, shave, curl, straighten; We cut it, dreadlock it, donate it, and occasionally douse it to kill off the lice.

We’re sometimes born bald. We sometimes die bald. I was yanked from the womb early with forceps that left my head badly misshapen. Fine tufts gradually grew in, and my hair was unremarkable for decades. But then God let cancer have a go at me, and the chemo stripped it all back off.

“What???” God says, emphatically.

“Yes, all of it. Legs, arms, eyebrows, privates…”

“I know what you mean, but ‘God let cancer have a go?’ C’mon. Is that really how you see it?”

“What other way is there?” Me, arms crossed. God, preening in the mirror.

I don’t want platitudes for an answer. In my limited view, if God is God, then that’s that. Good and evil might seem definable in the moment, but as time in our mortal bodies passes, clarity fades and boundaries blur. Any kind of loss, torture, crucifixion, or disease takes a terrible toll. But endings, unsettlings, baldings, and pain often provide the energy necessary for rebirth, joy, peace, and health.

“True,” God says. “But even that isn’t the whole story.”

“So, then what’s the whole story?” I ask. But I have a pretty good idea what God is going to say.

“There is no such thing as a whole story,” God says, with a grin larger than necessary. “The wholeness of the story is in the process. There are no tragic or happy endings, because there are no endings.”

“I knew you were going to say something impossible like that,” I say. “And you know they feel like endings, right?” I tip my head to the side and add, “At least you didn’t blame anyone.”

God touches my face, kisses my head, and nods. “Nice chatting, but I need to go now. I’ve got a hair appointment. Just a trim, but I’m thinking of adding strands of purple here and there.”

God is beautifully grey, but purple will be a nice addition. And as for me, my hair’s been more or less back for five years now. I’m into bleach and occasional blue, but I have tubes of red, green, pink, and turquoise at the ready. I like having choices, but–here’s a small confession—if I don’t like the outcomes, it’s nice to have God around to help me reconfigure.

Nothing to be Done

Sometimes I take God by the neck and shake him until he goes limp and falls like rain and dust and shards of stained glass at my feet—a deadly mix of elements within my power to restore but broken and unlikely. I walk away barefoot, continually astonished at the human propensity to self-destruct.

Usually, the high wind warnings are accurate. Anything of value or consequence must be weighted down or be lost. But somehow the birds stay light and navigate the currents of air with enviable grace. It’s easy to resort to anger. It’s tempting to bow down to lesser gods and find temporary nourishment by eating the tender parts of your own soul. Tempting, but not wise. This morning, I pause and chew my thumb nail instead. Penitent. Pensive. Wishing I had the patience of Job or the dark wings of Kali.

God assembles himself. I keep my hands in my lap. God swivels his hips. I nod noncommittally. God leans in and whispers, “I can tell you where the chickens are hiding their eggs.” He’s flirting. I resist.

“I can predict the next storm,” he says. I shrug.

“Hell, I can control the next storm,” he adds, trying to get a rise out of me. It works.

“Do you think I don’t know that?” I ask, exasperated. “Do you not understand how hard that is to hear? You can control a storm but not an army? You can make it rain, but things die of drought and starvation?”

When I’m like this, sometimes God gets irritable and defends himself, claiming to suffer along with everyone else. Sometimes, God gets all loving and huge and tries to instill hope. And sometimes, God just takes a single sip of my dark morning beer and waits.

And I wait. And the silence reminds me of wonder. And the slow-moving clouds remind me of water. And I remember the unusually fat worm I dug up yesterday. Of their own volition, my calloused hands come together in a kind of praise—a grudging acceptance of very thin skin.

There’s nothing to be done about God. Ground cover only lasts so long. Light breaks through. Dirt blows in. Rain eventually falls and the magical seeds sprout; rhizomes shoot along in the dark until they surface uninvited. The tenacity is a splendor and a curse.

“You remind me of quackgrass,” I tell God, breaking our shared revery.

“Funny,” God says. “I was thinking the same thing about you.”

Goodwill

Today, I am wearing polka dot pants and a striped shirt. My hair is bedheaded in an unattractive way and my black and green socks feature a famous golfer. Yes, I’ve been to the church of Goodwill again, and as usual, God was present in abundance. I had to leave, but it was clear that God planned to stay until closing. While I was there, he managed to load five carts full of treasures as he chatted up the Russians and a shy woman who looked Asian. He commiserated with the disabled man and paid for three people’s purchases.

I don’t know what he did when the store closed for the night, but I came back to this borrowed house in this borrowed town and did laundry. We’re here because my friend Max is clinging, perhaps unwillingly, to the last strands of a well-lived life. At present, I’ve hidden myself upstairs to write and think. I hope God doesn’t come by. I’m preoccupied and sad, and it would be tedious to review all his finds.

“Tedious?” God says, incredulous. “You might be the slowest learner ever. How long have we been acquainted?”

“Depends,” I sigh. “At least half-a-century. But if we go with Psalms 139, then longer.”

For some reason, God thinks this is funny. Maybe I do too. Or maybe not. Who wants to count up every second they’ve breathed the rarefied air of this good earth? Music from downstairs drifts up. “I love it when you sing to me,” croons David Gabriel, singing Steven Merritt’s song, The Book of Love. It’s part of the Zoom pub quiz process that ends this semester’s happiness class. My job is to stay offline and out of sight. I’m fairly good at both, but I’m worried about God. He’s in a mood.

“Should I sneak down and wink at everyone on the screen?” God asks. “Or just check my Facebook page and download megabytes of things?”

“No,” I say firmly. “You’d bump him offline, and if you show up, you’ll cause trouble.”

“Exactly,” God says. “I’d like that.”

“What makes you happy, God?” I ask, hoping to distract him.

“Money,” God says. I roll my eyes. “Doing whatever I feel like doing. Driving a fast car. Taking more than my share. Getting drunk and stoned and all messed up. Keeping my wife pregnant.”

“Stop it,” I say, plugging my ears. This is not the time for irony.

God shrugs. “You asked,” he says. “Want to see some of my stuff? I found three navy blue shirts, this hat, and…” He glances at my face and stops mid sentence. His voice cracks. “There’s nothing more either of us can do,” he says. “Death will come when it comes.”

“But you’re hanging out there, right?” I manage to say.

“I can’t believe you’re even asking,” God says. But he says it in a soft, kind voice. It’s then that I notice the logo on the shirts and the baseball hat. Mariners. Max’s favorite team.

Comfort

God is thick like a down quilt this morning. Thick in the air, thick in the snow, thick in the garden dirt, thick in the fire, thick in sadness, thick in my chest.

Maybe lingering, maybe gone, is a loved one of such large heart and honest soul that the world has a hollow sound right now. An empty echo. The long vibration of the gong. The bell that tolls. I could look to the blackbirds for comfort or the white hills with their dusting of snow, but I don’t want comfort. I want wisdom. It eludes me.

Yesterday was warmer. I found evidence that the raspberry roots are taking life seriously and have begun to send up dark green signs of hope. We could have a bright red harvest next year and maybe even a few berries later this year. The long arc of transplantation requires patience and faith. I sat back on my haunches and gave thanks. But as the day ended, black doubts took hold, and I went to bed hungry.

“Good morning, little one,” God says gently as she shakes off the majesty of thickness and shrinks into human view. A gift. God’s body thrown across the railroad tracks of fear and despair. God, willing to be a slender apparition, glowing in momentary light. I’m torn. I know God is dead and alive, here and there, atomic and cosmic. But I’m no longer sure I speak the right language to be fully understood, and I have these wounds that open in the night. I use whatever pressure I can muster to close them, but they will never heal.

“Good morning, God,” I answer, staring out the one unshaded window. “I don’t feel like moving, or I’d offer you some coffee. Sorry.”

“No worries, honey,” God says. “I know where you keep the cups.”

Aerobics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You ridin’ black or white?” I ask.

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

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

Caramel Sauce

I

“God,” I said. “Could you pass the caramel sauce?” We were enjoying bowls of vanilla bean ice cream. It seemed a small request, so when God grabbed the jar, tipped it to his lips, and chugged the contents, I was astonished. Caramel doesn’t usually flow like milk, but God’s hand was so hot, the sweet sluggish sauce thinned, and he gulped it down, just like that.

God put the empty jar in front of me, looking decidedly sick. My ice cream melted as I stared at him and considered what to say or do. Clearly, this wasn’t about the caramel. Was this a lesson? A parable? A joke? Had God lost his mind? Was God going to throw up? It looked possible, so I slid our silver garbage can toward him.

Sure enough, up it came. God dropped to his knees, clutching the garbage can, retching and sweating, pale as a ghost. The smell of caramel-tinged stomach acid wafted through the air. I wanted to move discretely away, but I would’ve had to step over him. It is never wise to step over the heaving body of God, so I waited.

And waited. I was trying to remember the symptoms of rabies. There were bits of foam on the sides of God’s mouth, and he looked miserably deranged. Why had I asked for that caramel sauce? My ice cream was fine without it. Why do I ask for anything? As minutes gave way to hours, God swelled into swarms of bees, throngs of refugees, herds of cattle, sprouting seeds, and the vast undulating sky. The soft perimeter of what appeared to be reality gave way and I began to fall. “This could be my final fall,” I thought to myself as the lanolin scent of wool filled my nostrils. But it was not my final fall. Not my last bowl of ice cream.

II

In the wake of the caramel incident, God has been more circumspect. “I may not be as stable as I think I am,” she admitted. “Maybe I need more rest.”

“But you’re the definition of rest,” I countered, hesitant to upset her but unwilling to let go of my favorite idea about God. God stared straight ahead. Words ground to a halt and the long overdue ice age arrived.

We froze solid, but God’s eyes burned from within the glacial temple. Brightly winged beings touched smoldering coals to my lips and lifted the sun back into place. This was good. In fact, this was perfect. I had raspberries to transplant, and they need the sun. There’s nothing better than raspberry sauce from the hardy heirloom varieties I love so much.

Co-Author Explodes Again

My co-author blew up yesterday. This happens when realities clash or there are temperature extremes. First, hairline cracks appear in God’s image–like they do in cement when you’ve poured a slab but failed to make the relief cuts required to handle the stress of shrinkage. The cracks widen into fissures. The rumbling grows into thunderous protests working their way up from the bottom of soul. And then as they say in the comics: Ka-boom. The Confetti of God swirls in the sky while bits of fuselage and bone drift down. It can have a chilling effect, so I usually position myself in direct sunlight and wait. Sometimes I add a layer or two of outerwear. Right now, I have on pajamas and two fleece vests.

In a little while, I’ll start picking up the pieces–carefully and without judgement. That’s not to say I won’t cry, but for now, I can handle it. God has strange ways of saying “I love you.” I try to allow for the idiosyncrasies involved in our intimate but elusive relationship. There are other ways I could make it through life but none of them are very appealing.

While I wait, the little gods wash downstream like easy plastic, insisting on their right to kill the dolphins and coral reef. The bigger gods don’t float. They’re a series of bad ideas that reposition their fat hinnies after each disruption, causing damaging aftershocks, gluttonous wealth, and great misery.

A manifestation of Nothing is caught in the crystal formation to my left. “Hello, God.” I say, as I watch the same sun at work, warming what will always be Nothing as it warms my vested, innocent shoulders. “Why do I feel so guilty?”

The Voice of God is green and unbelievably forgiving. The Eyes of God are as reassuring as last year’s nest blown down, still lined with soft feathers plucked from the underbelly of creation. The ways I defend myself are ineffective over the long haul and the ways I try to care for other aspects of creations…equally so. Maybe that’s why God needs to explode, but I don’t like it. The responsibilities for reassembling weigh me down.

“They weigh me down, too,” God tells me, as we slide westward, following the light and warmth, stiff from chronic disappointments and damaged joints. “There seems to be no end to the adjustments required.”

“I know,” I say. “That’s why I’m glad you invented Sabbath. Let’s rest a bit. I’ll put you back together tomorrow.”

“Sounds good,” God agrees. And we curl into the perfect fractal for an afternoon nap.

Did We Begin on the Seventh Day, When God Dozed Off?

God’s creative management style is not one I’d recommend for small or even large businesses. And I am not saying that behind her back; she’s sitting right here, watching me examine the dust on the mirror. I like mirrors, but they get very dusty. She listens with rapt attention as I mutter about hatred and cruelty and offer critical analysis of her most irritating creatures. The marvel and madness of God is that she is patient, permissive, and absolute. She cares little about insults, greatly about suffering, and allows all things and beings to spin on their wobbly, narcissistic axes until they’ve spun themselves out.

I offer her the keyboard. She refuses. I offer her the day. She laughs.

 “Nah,” she says. “I have so many days I don’t know what to do with them all. And anyway, the day you’re offering is already mine.” This is true, but also it isn’t. I blow on the mirror and watch a few particles of dust shift around. She looks on, hands folded in her enviable lap–a lap that is a cave, a womb–a lap that’s a luxury apartment in Manhattan, a well-built hut in the Congo, the cab of a semi with an alert and friendly driver capable of backing up without a second thought.

“And she’s off,” God says, making fun of my fantasies. This time, I laugh, delighted at the twinkle in God’s eye.

“Laps are great, aren’t they?” I say. “My friend had a dream that she had a horse on her lap. Imagine that.” God already knows this dream, but we enjoy the story anyway.

Once in a long while, when God’s in a tough place, I hold her on my lap and let her be small, but I’ve never held a full-grown horse.

“It’s always what you can handle,” God says. “Until you can’t.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Dreams are some other language. Flying dreams are the best, but mostly, I fall off ledges, try to save helpless children, and find hidden rooms in buildings I’m remodeling.”

“I know,” God says. “It’s confusing.”

I consider that for minute and then ask, “Well, why don’t you let people dream what they want to dream?”

“Oh, I do,” God says. “I absolutely do.” I look skeptical but say nothing. The inner, the outer; the brain, the mind. At the heart of the great mystery, is it simply random synaptic firings? Did God invent evolution for fun? Did we begin on the seventh day, when God dozed off? Are we the dream? The particles of dust on my mirror? The coming and going of migratory birds?

“Yes!” God says. And the twinkle in her eye explodes into blinding light. I fumble my way to that lap where I know I am being dreamed and settle in, migratory and alert.

Revenge is an Autoimmune Disorder

Lately I’ve been creating words with great deliberation because I’ve voluntarily immobilized some of my fingers with a splint to reduce the pain of a swollen joint. And I am unreasonably enraged. Every keystroke counts. Every option must be carefully considered. That’s how old this has all become: God and I exist almost beyond recognition, agitated by self-imposed limits and unrealistic longings as arbitrary and simplistic as the arrival of spring.

“Dear God,” I say, in a voice laced with ice. “Is there anything that would be enough?”

“No,” God answers, unapologetic. ”It’s more about hunger. Less about satiation.”

“But isn’t there a way to set the table so people get their just deserts?” I think my play on words is pretty funny.

“Depends on the menu,” God says, going with the analogy but staying on the serious side.

“Revenge,” I say, unwisely honest. “Revenge is on my menu today. Injury. Insult. Revenge.”

“Oh,” God says. “So that’s what you’re shopping for. Those aren’t commodities I distribute directly. But I can make some recommendations.”

“No thanks,” I say. “I’ve got reliable dealers.”

“I’m sure you do,” God says. “But time is short. Sleep in white sheets and don’t decorate to deceive.”

I consider this bizarre advice. The wounds I wish to inflict have surfaced in my joints and sinews. They limit my range of motion; they dwarf my imagination.

“God,” I say. “Doesn’t everyone decorate to deceive? And why worry about sheets?”

Sometimes, God explains. Sometimes God does not. As we sit quietly, it seems likely this is one of those times I’ll be stuck trying to explain things to myself. But after a moment, God adds, “Revenge is an autoimmune disorder.” He removes the splint, takes my hands, anoints them with coconut oil, kisses each swollen knuckle, and turns my palms up. I see down through the calloused layers of my life.

“If you sleep nude on white sheets, the colors of your dead skin leave distinct markings. Like a map—a recognition. A way forward.” God says. “It is good to shed dead skin. Good to leave evidence of your slow, distinct transformations.”

“But sometimes, I don’t want to transform, God. I want to get my offenders by the neck and do some transforming of my own.”

“Me, too,” God says. But he continues to hold my hands. Slowly, I move God’s hands up to my neck, cover God’s hands with mine, and wait. There is a pulsating warmth but no pressure. Then God gently slides his hands free and puts them around his own neck which has become a Giant Sequoia.

“I can’t reach,” I say.

“I know,” God says. “And I’m O.K. with that.”