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.”

Good and Evil, Weeds and Greens

I just ordered extra-strength mold and mildew killer for a nasty basement area that hosts a strain of fungi I do not like. And later today I’ll chop, pull, and in some cases, spray chemicals on bugs and weeds and tenacious grasses that are choking the good stuff.

I hate this.

I hate every single stupid aspect of the battle between good and evil, weeds and vegetables, beneficial bugs and destructive infestations, liars and truth-tellers, thieves and the generous of spirit. I realize there’s a purpose for all of creation. Nature is not mistaken. We know a little but not enough. Defining anything as a weed or as evil begs the question of an omniscient creator who pronounces all things good (or potentially good, or redeemable). It violates my premise that God knows what God’s up to. This is why being rational sucks sometimes. The whole of life is filled with unsettling contradictions that must be addressed or endured.

I’m a consumer and a provider–a lover, hater, poet, pragmatist, winner, loser, dreamer, doodler; I’m easily duped but wise in the ways of my insular world. On occasion, I fail to be honest or kind—but I’m skilled at manufacturing reasons to justify myself.

As a human, I have a large degree of autonomy. I have the prerogative to be caring or cruel, truthful or deceitful; I have power over those weaker than I am. Each day arrives new but slightly tainted by the dregs of the day before. The brilliant colors of an unguarded sky disorient me as the hot wind of redundancy stirs the August dust. By late afternoon, I see in my face the toll taken by trying to live well. What do the “evil” people see—the depraved and debauched—do they see the same contours?  Small victories and apparent defeats? Do they glimpse God with her arms crossed, waiting? Do they see my futile longing to give every living thing another chance?

The problem with weeds and germs is that they don’t know their place: they’re not humble. They roam around the party sipping wine from everyone’s glass. They are invasive and infectious. Taking unfair advantage, they form self-defeating monocultures and thus fail to be a balanced part of an intricate ecosystem.

The God I hang out with is the Balancer-in-Chief. She climbs on the scales, lies down in the street, lets the bastards starve her to death. She sustains injuries from the blast, drowns in the flood, joins the protests, widens the cracks, and endures. Unlike me, she seems to know it will come out okay in the end. There will be justice. There will be mercy. There will be love. I shield my eyes from the glare of the moment, but I can only see so far. So while I’m still able, I yank at the weeds with a ferocious mix of futility and hope, and with a certain sadness, I leave their roots exposed to the merciless sun.

Influencer

“God,” I said to my coauthor, “we need to try and appeal to a younger audience. Maybe we shouldn’t focus on disease, death, plague, poverty, and pestilence so often.”

“Ya think?” God said. He’d stopped by in the guise of distinguished looking diplomat, trimmed beard, clear blue eyes, three-piece suit. Trustworthy. Then, just as he sat down, he aged into a very old man in baggy clothes, legs bent to the chair like sticks, vision clouded by cataracts. “Stop worrying that pretty little head of yours. Come give me a little peck on the cheek,” he said. “There’s smoke in the chimney, fire in the belly.” He jiggled his torso. It was repulsive. What in the heck was God up to? After a couple of lurid winks, God morphed again. She leaned over me, sweet cleavage burbling out of her scant bikini inches from my nose. She smelled of sunshine, youth, hope, and laughter—utterly delicious. “How’s this?” God asked.

“Mirror, please,” I said. God handed me a simple mirror, and I turned it on her. “Oh,” she gasped. “I forget how beautiful I am sometimes.” Then she turned it back on me. Given my 66 years, pajamas, and wayward hair, I did not have the same reaction.

“So you want a younger audience, eh?” God said. I pushed the mirror away. “Why?” she asked, not unkindly. She slipped a beach cover over her perfect shoulders.

I thought about it. Why would I want a younger audience? Why would I want an audience at all? I don’t even like people very well. “Influence,” I said hesitantly. “I think you should be a social influencer, and I’m willing to help.”

“Thanks,” God said with a wry smile, “but I can handle it. There are so many idiots, zealots, fanatics, and frightened people speaking for me, explaining me in formulas, thinking they have a bead on who I AM, I don’t really need any more help.”

I tried to be thoughtful, but God could see my feelings were hurt. She added, “Sometimes, sweetheart, diminishment amplifies the truth and lets the light in through the cracks.” Diminishment? The old Shaker song, T’is a gift to be simple got into my head, and as I hummed the tune, God grew large, black, and soft, and I relaxed into the familiar comfort of the unknowable. Her name was Diminishment. Her name was Truth.

“Why do you come by?” I asked.

“Why do I love you?” God asked back.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s your only viable option.”

“Nope,” God said. “It’s a choice, and it happens to be the best way to influence anyone. Ever.”

In this vast land of fear and loathing, we hunkered down and snuggled. Then God packed up the mirror and left, taking most of the available light. She left me a little. Just a little. But I think it will be enough.

Pecking Order

There are fourteen tiny chicks in a box at my feet, hopping around, testing their wings, eating, drinking, pooping, napping, and then starting the sequence over again. They are utterly defenseless, so small they’d not even make a good hors d’oeuvre for a predator, but they don’t seem to know this. When I reach down to get one, they chirp in vociferous protest and scramble away as if escape were possible. Think of the energy they’d save if they just laid down and accepted whatever came their way–warmth, light, food, clean water, a snuggle with a human–or a quick end to a short life. Instead, they react to perceived threat with every fiber of their fuzzy little beings. It’s both comical and profound.

Chickens do not seem to engage in self-reflection. Among their favorite treats are chicken eggs and chicken meat. Their opportunistic cannibalism doesn’t appear to trigger any crises of conscience, and it doesn’t bother me either. They’re cute, and I’m pretty sure they like me. After capture, they relax in my warm hands, and some drift off to sleep. I can’t be sure, but it looks like blissful surrender.

“Well, it’s not,” God says, as she joins me, latte in hand.

“Where’d you get that?” I ask. I have my beer, but the latte looks good.

She flashes the telltale Starbucks logo and nods at the chicks. “They’re playing dead. It’s a last resort.”

“They are not,” I say.

God leans back. “Chickens are one of my prototypes,” she says. “But there are some design flaws. They have pecking orders and will literally kill and eat the hen at the bottom, especially if she’s an outsider. I’m not proud of how this has turned out so far.”

When God says things like that, it triggers my reactivity. “Yeah. And what’s the plan exactly? If the lion lies down with the lamb, what will the lion eat? Grass?”

God scoops up one of the black chicks and makes cooing sounds. Exasperated, I continue. “And if chickens kill the weakest member, doesn’t that make the flock stronger? And why would people born with a penis want a vagina? And if you have the chance to enslave someone for free labor, why not? Isn’t this why you gave us women, guns, and germs?”

God puts the chick back among the others, sips the last of her latte, and folds her hands. I slither to the floor. My plan is to play dead when God picks me up. But God just sits there, smiling and waiting. I look with longing at her soft, giant hands.

“Won’t work,” she says. “You’re too old to play dead.” She helps me change the water while the chicks chirp frenetically. “They’re so darn adorable,” she says.

“And versatile,” I say sarcastically, still wishing for an easier way, a less disturbing set of truths.

“And versatile,” God says, in a calm, dark voice. “Versatile.”

Legacy

Reportedly one symptom of Covid 19 is the loss of taste, which in rare cases could be a blessing. The worst thing I’ve ever tasted was a stink bug hidden in a bowl of fresh raspberries. Stink bugs emit a foul odor when disturbed, but they taste far more foul when bitten.

I doubt God has ever bitten a stink bug. I imagine the worst thing God has ever tasted is hatred. Even a little bit of hatred can ruin the whole savory stew of a creation born of love. I spat that stink bug out, brushed my teeth, and gargled, but the taste lingered. I shudder to think what we’re doing to God right now. But maybe it’s God’s own fault. The stink bug was entirely accidental. We’re not. There’s nothing accidental about us.

Some of you may wonder about the motivation, sanity, and content of this blog…as have I. Right now, you are reading my 200th post. Just over five years ago, I had a chance encounter with cancer. Facing imminent mortality yanked my consciousness around. Disbelief and indignation got all tangled up with gratitude, terror, and determination. My connections to the Great Beyond, the God of Bigness, Littleness, Cosmos, Critters, Creative Urgency, and Salvation expanded like stretchy strands of spider web, tenacious as dry rot eating through brick; God, the ever-branching tentacles; me, the crumbling brick.

I’ve gotten to know my bothersome Co-Author fairly well because I live by a river, and it’s quiet sometimes–quiet enough to hear the continual cracking of God’s fractured heart and green enough to witness the courageous mending wrought by the small yellow flowers as they befriend their fate.

Every day, I try to follow suit and befriend my fate. Bark peels off the fallen tree into my hands, and even this has become more beautiful than I can bear. I lay the best pieces on the water and send them downstream to people I do not know and cannot name; gay, black, beaten, homeless…the hungry and the dead.

No one comes back to tell us anything about legacies or regrets, but I am convinced everything matters a little. Like attending. Showing up. But to really show up, to take it all in, I have to pry myself open to touch and see, listen…and yes, to smell and taste. Even after the stink bug incident, some days I bravely sniff the breeze and roll the taste of God around in my mouth. No matter how fresh or putrid, bitter or sweet, I try to savor. Some days, God bravely does the same with me.

I wish each ferocious moment of connection would be enough, but that’s not how it works. Thus, I ponder and write. Thank you for reading these blogs and for prying yourselves as open as you dare. Openings create legacies, fleeting and fine-boned, as all legacies should be. For that, I am grateful.

Insult to Injury

I often make lists of the many sins committed against me. Acts of omission or malice, blows landed, insults slung. It’s like anticomfort food. And to add to my misery, ailments regularly drape and infest my body. Some days, I hope for a temporary ceasefire between invading forces. Other days, all is lost.

“Despair is nothing new to the human condition,” God says. “But then, neither is joy.”

“Oh, you are so subtle, God.” I said with a snarl, thinking God was trying to cheer me up.

“I’m hungry,” God said. “Will you give me a scrap of food?” This was not what I’d expected, and I’d already put the breakfast things away. I ignored the request.

“I’m frightened,” God said. “I’m lonely. I’m in prison.” God looked misshapen. I backed away. He seemed deranged and dangerous.

“My village flooded. I have nothing left,” God said. I checked the locks on my doors and the passwords on my accounts.

“I’m so tired,” God said. “I walked all night.” I shook my head. God was filthy, and I’d just changed the sheets.

“My legs have been broken,” God said. “I can’t walk.” He tried to drag himself toward me, arm over arm. I turned my back and ran until I fell exhausted on rocky ground. God coalesced in the stratosphere, floated down like a feather, and circled his body around mine. My face burned with shame. “I can’t,” I said through clenched teeth and tried to kick him away. “I can’t fix you. Can’t fix all the broken places. Can’t stop coming apart. What do you want from me?”

“Oh baby,” God murmured as he rocked my resistant body. “I want joy…and maybe a bit of compassion now and then. The kind that gratitude generates. But mostly, joy.”

This seemed reasonable, but I couldn’t fend off the fog of helplessness thickening around me. It was blinding and cold. I thought this nicer, softer God would obliterate it for me, but instead, he looked worried. “Throw it off!” he said, with some urgency. “Throw it off now. Think. Where’d you hide that last bit of joy?”

“In the paint brushes,” I said, sitting up. “And that incredibly twisted driftwood. And the words. And that kiss.”

“Go,” God said. “Paint, wander, write, kiss. And be sure to light the fire. I’ve dried the kindling for you.” He pulled small sticks from under his robe.

Suddenly, more than anything, I needed to paint something purple. And gold. And forest green. But the world had grown too dark to see very well. I remembered a line from Frederick Douglass’s famous speech (What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?) It’s not light that we need, but fire. Artificial illumination would not do. I could only paint a true and joyous thing by enduring the flickering glow of fire. I took the kindling gratefully and kissed the Pathetic Old Thing on his wrinkled cheek as we turned ourselves toward the gathering storm.