Joy

“Hey God,” I said as I stared at two chairs I plan to transform. “Is there joy in magenta?” God was stretched out on the couch, reading an old New Yorker. He lowered the magazine.

“Come again?” He made a point of looking at me attentively.

“Joy,” I said. “What is it?” For a simple, three-letter word, joy is surprisingly agile and elusive. Sometimes, I get a rush of joy from certain pigments. Other times, everything clashes. I give thanks for primer. New canvases. Old chairs. Starting over.

God raised himself to one elbow. He’s long and thin today. “Honey, fragments of joy are visitations–temporary indwellings. The chemicals involved for temporal beings like you aren’t stable. In fact, the physical and spiritual are dangerously reactive.”

I’ve never like chemistry. I’d rather consider joy outside the realm of chemicals. But God was insistent and maybe a little worried.

“Unstable. Check it out.” He laid back down and feigned rapt interest in reading. When he treats me like that, I know I’m supposed to carry on.

Fine. I looked it up: Something that is dangerously reactive is in constant danger of polymerization, condensation or decomposition. It can also become self-reactive when stressed or under pressure. I was starting to relate. Stay with me, fellow chemistry-avoiders. I’ll simplify.

Polymerization involves small molecules that join together and become BIG molecules, causing heat and pressure. Yes. Greed and light. This can be modulated by catalysts and initiators—I know plenty of interpersonal catalysts and initiators–but it can get out of control. Boom. No joy. Inhibitors can be useful, if properly managed. But they can malfunction. They’re supposed to slow or prevent unwanted reactions, but they decline in power over time. They need to be kept chilled. We get lazy. Things happen.

Condensation involves molecules that join together to make a new substance (sounds kind of sexy). Byproducts might include water or some other simple substance, but the energy produced is sometimes more than predicted—more than can be handled. There can be fire, or serious ruptures. Jealousy. Hatred. And yes, joy—but hoarded or gone wrong.

And then there’s decomposition—well known to all of us aging into simpler forms. Even decomposition can release hazardous amounts of energy. “Some pure materials are so chemically unstable that they vigorously decompose at room temperatures by themselves.” Scan your social connections. Rings true, especially this past year.

Self-reactivity is even more painful. Explosions can occur from even small tremors—an insult, a hammer blow, elevated demands. Destructive reactivity. No joy.

“Ok,” I said, “So it’s risky. I get it.” Then I began applying the magenta to the corners of an overworked canvas. “Let’s just see what happens.” And from the far end of ultraviolet, where things are no longer visible to the naked eye, God smiled and said, “Yes, let’s.”

Found Art

Right now, I’m alone and hungry, and the relative silence I count on for creativity is hampered by the bathroom fan which is running because when I took our garbage down, I found a magnetic toothbrush haphazardly stuck to our dumpster and brought it home because it made me laugh, and I had some spray paint that would make it even funnier, so I took it out on the deck and sprayed it dark red, but the spray paint smelled toxic and it’s too cold to leave it outside to dry, so the toothbrush is drying in the bathroom: loud fan, thin door.

I’m going to leave myself hungry for a while because disruption and deprivation are rare for most of us and even small approximations are revealing. I have a chocolate bar at my elbow and granola a few feet away. I have Yo-Yo Ma ready to play on YouTube, and I’m fairly certain God would stop by for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. I have only to click, access, or ask. But I’m not going to. For this moment: No food. No silence. No God. No music.

Under my nose, my hands come together between paragraphs, and I realize that due to definitions, the No-God option is unavailable. Maybe this is a good thing. I breathe deeply and catch a whiff of that sharp smell escaping from the bathroom. I wonder if this is penance. I wonder if I need mercy.

I wonder if I could think more clearly if I had a bowl of granola. Mercies aren’t necessarily merciful, and God’s ever-presence is neither blessing nor curse. I wonder if I could spray paint God to increase visibility. I hear a chuckle. I wonder if I could make God hungry. I hear a groan.

“Fine,” I say to God. “You may as well materialize. Put your feet up.  Enjoy the view. Want some tea? Granola?”

God infuses the room diaphanous, translucent. Not hungry. Not visible. My hands elongate, my feet lose sensation, my vision expands, distorts, softens.

“No thanks,” God says, without making a sound.

“Then why are you here?” I ask, in an ungracious way.

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” God says, lifting a line from a recent detective show. “Besides, how do you know I’m here?”

I leave the unsteady room to check on the toothbrush. It’s dry. I wave it at God. “Seriously, what do you want? Why do you come by?” The toothbrush snaps itself to the refrigerator thanks to a magnet of considerable strength. But it’s kind of creepy sticking out there, deep red, reminiscent of bleeding gums. This won’t do. I need a gallery for found art and profound despair, and I need a cathedral where I can paint God into a corner. Both are unlikely.

I click, and Yo-Yo Ma begins to perform. I pour a bowl of granola and smile at God who has coalesced into a paintbrush dipped in turquoise. I’m working on a self-portrait. I’m not sure which colors to use, but for now, turquoise might be perfect.

Black Holes/White Flags

Once upon a time, God appeared in the living room and walked straight to the wood stove, extending his hands toward the fire. He seemed chilled and uptight. After a while, he gave me a half-eyed glance and in a choked voice said, “I sure hope I’m the kind of God you write about.”  Mystified, I mustered a reassuring smile.

Another time, God blew through the top of the cottonwoods, a holy howling terror, uprooting trees. Powerlines sparked and whipped like snakes. She pounded her chest, lifted skirts, and inverted the umbrellas intended to thwart the rain. “You will not stay upright,” she shrieked across the expanse. “You will not stay dry and there’s nowhere to hide.”

I hid.

God peeked down into my hiding place. “Sorry,” she said. “You can come out now.”

And then there was the time it drizzled miserably for days, and my sad friend told me she was dying, and the only God I could find was a four-legged critter that appeared to be a dog. God did some tricks, jumped on my friend’s lap, licked her face, and for a while, there was joy. Muted and resigned, but joy.

I slipped outside. Children were splashing in a threatening puddle. One of them kicked off bright yellow boots and squished black mud between her toes, barefoot and triumphant. I watched from the sidelines, silently cheering her on.

I’m remembering these times this morning as I sip a very stale beer—a gift from a stingy God who gives me leftovers–less than I think I deserve. But waste not, want not. And besides, what does deserve have to do with it? Is love earned or bestowed? Is it passed along or is each scrap absorbed into the black hole where nothing is ever enough and time itself has no meaning?

“Good morning,” God says, appearing beside me in stylish clothes. “Can I have a sip?”

“Sure,” I say. “It’s awful.”

God winks, tips the bottle back, swallows, and it’s gone. The beer is gone. The day is gone. Light is peeling off the walls, and I’m falling in.

“Help!” I yell to God as I dangle. The full weight of my body is too much.

God brings an umbrella and yellow boots, a dog, and a fresh beer. But I can’t accept any of it because I need both hands to hold onto the gravelly rim of my small reality.

“Let go,” God says.

“I can’t,” I yell back.

“Of course, you can,” God says, and kneels to loosens my fingers, one by one.

Illusions

Almost every morning, though I’m never quite sure why, I willingly rise to meet the occasion of dawn. Lately, I’ve been finding God already busy in the kitchen baking massive amounts of bread and eating chocolate between virtual meetings. Today, she’s humming to a shadowy companion who is also God. Above me, someone scuffles, below me someone coughs. They are also God. As usual, I’m surrounded, and as usual, I surrender—a prisoner of a war I don’t remember starting.

“Toast?” God asks and winks. “My inmates never go hungry.”

From the far corner of a certain cold reality, I am tempted to refuse. But I love breakfast. “Sure,” I say. “Thanks.” I pour my own coffee and situate myself where the news of the world murmurs in the background, not close enough to harm me—or so I think. But behold. It harms me anyway.

I have a friend who wastes no time. She gets up early for advanced instruction in her second language. Yesterday, she forgot the word for garlic and all was lost. But not really. We both know better. We grew up with Joni Mitchell. We were lucky.

Each day I am reminded of lilies as I dress myself. The petals of lilies hold moisture. If you crush them, the nectar of the gods will glisten in the palm of your unfamiliar hand, and you will ask forgiveness even if you’re sure you haven’t sinned. But how can anyone be sure?

God sits down for a breather, wiping flour dust across the front of her dark silk blouse. Her face is flushed and sweaty from leaning into the oven. So many loaves. So much redemption. “Uh-oh,” I say, as I try to brush the flour streaks off her chest. “You have to look good from the waist up. Remember?”

I offer her a hanky, feeling oddly chivalrous. She mops it across her forehead and gives it back dripping. I contemplate the holy sweat of God pooling in my hand. Could I use this hanky to absolve myself? The world? Could I water the broken lilies and restore them to their former glory?

“Eat your toast,” God smiles, her voice rich and motherly. “Just eat your toast.” She glances down at her smeared shirt and disappears, presumably to change. Maybe I’m supposed to entertain the other Gods and do the dishes. Maybe not. Their sufficiency is both reassuring and destabilizing. I’m never sure what I’m called to do so I make things up. In graduate school the professors said we should not act without a theory to undergird our actions. For some time now, my theory has been love. It’s a weak theory with limited explanatory power. That’s why I like it so much.

Parallel Parking

Today, God and I drove slow miles on familiar streets through neighborhoods that were once mine. I remembered parties I attended, work I did, meetings I conducted, flirtations, indignations, victories, defeats. Everything was distorted in the ways the past distorts itself. Soft and gone. We drifted in and out of shops where nice people helped us reduce our lists of irritating errands. God chattered, waved, and pointed as I coped with the exhaustion of nostalgia. She steered for a while, but then abandoned the front seat altogether because she did not have my full attention.

Texting while driving is a bad idea. Driving around with a buoyant God might be worse. She floods the interior with visions and boundless energy. It was not only distracting, it was paralyzing. “God,” I finally said as I struggled to parallel park, “You need to quiet down and let me focus.”

God saluted, unbuckled, leaped out, opened my door, and bowed like she was a valet at a five-star hotel. And I willingly stepped into the mud of the world, the DNA of impending disaster. Black ice. It was slicker than I thought, and I nearly fell. The carpet of God spread itself thick, and the arm of God shot out. The mouth of God said, “Whoa there, Nelly.” I resented the assistance.

“Let go,” I said, shaking my elbow free of God’s hand. “I’m fine.”

“Of course, you are, dear,” said my snappy young God. She melted into razor-sharp shadows cast by the midday sun. My parking job wasn’t stellar. God leaned against the building and watched me consider my next move. Being with God is like being alone only worse. The fantasy of self-sufficient isolation is rendered pathetically transparent if you get caught in the gaze of God. We are seen and seen through. It doesn’t seem fair.

I don’t know how long I stood there, regrouping, asserting my right to a modicum of privacy, but I know I made it home in time to cook a nutritious dinner of vegetables I peeled myself. I don’t know how many more streets will become familiar before God and I no longer navigate exploratory routes, but every day I remind myself that at least for now, I know how to read a map. I dig into that idea like a dog in soft dirt, and I bury reminders and markers and idle thoughts, fully aware someone else will find them. That’s why I add incantations, blessings, and instructions for how to jitterbug. Who knows what might be needed?

Editing

Few writers love the editing process, but it’s a necessary tedium. The English professor on my dissertation committee marked ninety-three comma errors in my first draft, but as my co-author, God rarely has the patience to look for comma errors even though the need remains. She excuses herself, citing the liberating Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi: the mistake, the flaw, the imperfection becomes the passageway to a deeper understanding of perfection. I don’t like it. There are things I need to articulate, and I could use some skilled but kindly help to do it well.

The grandchildren visited for the weekend. The youngest fought the haze of sleep while I sat on a stack of pillows, providing what safety I could. In a voice softened by the mystical quality of those entering the other realm, she murmured her final conscious thought. “I want my mommy,” she said.

It wasn’t a full-throated protest or a ploy to stay awake. It was the final whisper that defines us all. Her eyes closed, and her body relaxed. My heart ached as I watched her sleep. I want my mommy, too. Not my real, deceased mother—the one who tried hard but sometimes failed. No, I want the perfect mommy.

“But what about me?” God said as she slipped into my head. “Am I not the mother of which you speak?” She was joking around like people do when they’re sure of themselves.

“No,” I told her. “No, you’re not.” I felt mean as I said it, but honestly, I have no time for this.

She might be perfect, but the way we interact is not. Her editing is whimsical, her grip on reality questionable, her motives often unclear. Not the mothering I imagine at all. “It’s complicated,” I hastened to add. “It’s not entirely your fault.” But it was too late. Her indignation seethed, and a torrent of grief swept over the face of the earth. Sea levels rose, and the dark wings of the birds of prey covered the sun. A bitter ending was palpable on the near horizon.

“Wait!” I said, “I’m sorry. I meant to say that you’re not what I expected, but you’ll do. You’re a pretty decent mother as mothers go. You’ll do.”

“But you can imagine better?” God countered, eyes boring through my body to the eternity at my back.

Ah, what to say. What to say. What to think. Could I imagine better? Was this a trick question? Was there any way out? I froze.

“C’mere,” God said. The waters receded. “Enough. You need some rest.” She motioned me to a soft, dark place.

I don’t know what I whispered as I fell asleep, but I know God stayed awake, sitting uncomfortably nearby. And honestly, what more can I ask?

Windbreak

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

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

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

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

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

What Makes God Sick

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

I grimaced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

Placebo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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