The Burden of Autonomy

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God and I are organizing my mom’s memorial. God keeps writing rhyming poems and trite drivel. This surprises me. One might think God would be a more free verse sort of entity.

“Why are you doing that?” I ask. Rude, perhaps, but this kind of writing seems so constricted and sentimental.

“What’s an uplifting word that rhymes with death?” God asks, chewing on a pencil, ignoring my question.

The word comes out unbidden. “Breath,” I say with a frown.

And then I cry. For three days and three nights, her body breathed on. Brain stem at work, they said. So we waited, and read to her, and sat by her, and combed her hair, and rolled her body gently to and fro. We talked, watched football, played music, and sat. Sat with life as it fought to hold on, sat with death as it waited with us.

She would not have wanted to die that way, but then, she didn’t want to die at all. She wasn’t one to give up. Ever. Her favorite saying was, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Obviously, she wasn’t Buddhist.

“God,” I say. “Why did you keep her alive those last days?”

“I didn’t,” God says, surprised. “She did. You did.”

I shake my head but I know it’s true. God looks on while we ignore basic quality of life issues, and invent ever more life-prolonging machines, medicines, and treatments, and provide them selectively to those with resources. God looks on while we starve and murder, deny help, and blame the poor for their conditions. God looks on while some people rake in millions of dollars as providers of interventions, medications, or insurances, and others go bankrupt trying to save a loved one.

If God fell from scaffolding and broke up his body, would Worker’s Comp fight to minimize the costs of his rehabilitation? Would we deny him Medicaid? If God slipped on the marble floor she was mopping…if God got cancer as a child…if God…

God interrupts. “I did not invent dialysis, chemo, or the electric chair. You did. I don’t set bones, prescribe blood pressure medications, or do CPR. You do. I don’t distribute food, goods, or services—nor do I withhold them. That’s all you.”

“But what about “thy will be done” and all that?” I ask. “Aren’t the fortunate fortunate because of you? Aren’t the rich rich because you blessed them? And the healthy? Isn’t it your will for people to live as long as they possibly can?”

God’s eyes roll and she makes a gagging sound. “No,” she says, steely-eyed. “Absolutely not. I’m sick of being used as an excuse. My will is, frankly, for you all to get a clue. You’re so self-absorbed and short-sighted, I have to repeat myself endlessly. Mercy. Justice. Compassion. Self-sacrifice. Translate those, would you? Your finite lives are your own. You have autonomy. You have choices. Stop blaming me.”

The weight of human prerogative pushes the air from my lungs. I have no reply.

“Breathe,” God says. “Breathe.”

A Farewell to September

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September has begun picking at the clothing summer gave her, refusing to eat, and sighing a lot. There’s little doubt it’s about over. October is waiting in the wings, audacious, pregnant with color, unafraid of snow.

“What’s your favorite month?” I ask God. I say this just to get a little conversation going. I don’t actually care about God’s favorite month, and usually, I hate these kinds of questions.

But I ask because God seems distant today. God is in a very big mood. Bigger than sky or any of the planets in our solar system. Bigger than whatever is beyond what we can see. Big. You might think such a big God wouldn’t have time to contemplate her favorite month, but you’d be wrong. As God and I have gotten better acquainted, certain subtleties of her personality have surfaced. She can be stubborn and compulsively attentive to minutia. She likes chit chat. For someone who created the known and unknown universe, she can seem quite shallow and petulant, although she’s also the ultimate role model for apologies and forgiveness. There’s a steadiness I appreciate, even if some of her ways annoy or confuse me.

“I like them all,” she answered. Her voice was knowing. Patient. “But there’s something intriguing about December in Montana, don’t you think?”

I regretted asking. I could feel some kind of lesson coming on. “Depends on what you mean by intriguing,” I said. “I don’t like snow, or the holidays, or bare branches, or slick roads. If you mean the fight to survive is intriguing, then yeah, I guess.”

God didn’t answer directly. Instead, she blurred herself into the gray ash of a cremated body. The bruised purple of sunrise filtered through the translucent storm that was God. I watched wide-eyed and afraid as she rolled the months into a blanket with an impatient flourish. She grabbed my soul, wrapped me tight in the distorted jumble of seasons, and suddenly, we were on the shores of Hawaii. There, clad in bright strips of rags, she scrubbed out the differences on sharp volcanic rocks, welcoming waves of salt water with the wrinkled solemnity of the ancient ones. Gradually, all beautiful, all dangerous, all vital distinctions gave way and floated out to sea.

“There you go,” she said. “An occasional hurricane, but otherwise, totally placid. Bland. Uniform. Predictable. Safe. Are you happy now?”

I hung my head and said, “No. Not really.”

And then I was alone. September doesn’t need me anymore but I know the perils of October all too well. Before the ground freezes, I will transplant rhubarb and stack the split and fragrant wood high against the coming winter. I’ll warm myself in the crackling circle of fire, and with the few words I have left, I’ll resurrect the seasons, even those that will eventually do me in.

A Message From Stone

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By arranging them just so, I can make rocks look like flowers from a distance. Or with a dab of acrylic paint, I can make them look like fish, fruit, or people. So many stunning rocks have come to me and told me their tumbling cracking coalescing stories. They’re always broken, but some have been reformed and smoothed. I don’t know if they long to reconnect to whatever lies beneath us. I don’t ask because I don’t want to answer that question myself. Rocks always look sure of themselves as they make their geologic journey back and forth from dirt. The lichen, wind, rain, and fire—these elemental forces usher them along—but I’m not so sure of myself and I don’t want these escorts.

Rocks are the bones of God, the repository of vital minerals and fleeting ideas. You’d think they’d be more permanent, but then God isn’t permanent. God just is. “Why?’ I ask God, as I curl my body around a very large river boulder “Why?” I ask again, touching the sharp edge of a crystal. “Why?” I ask a third time, a clear blue sapphire in the palm of my hand.

“Three questions, no answers,” God observes with an easy smile. God is an excellent listener. Less good with answers.

“Wow, you can count,” I say, glaring. I’ve been generally unhappy with God lately. “Did you see that news piece on Russia? The Orthodox believers think Putin is from God. This makes me sick.”

God nods, smiles, and says, “Me too. But you don’t have to go all the way to Russia to get a taste of that malarkey.”

There’s a pause. God repeats the word malarkey and starts laughing. I feel awkward, but then the willows start laughing, the evergreens start laughing, the mountains hold their bellies, gasping for air, but the air is laughing too. The absurdity of our teeny tiny human projections, distorted by fear, fueled by hatred, financed by greed—puny, grasping, hateful people called holy. Worshipped as if they can save us. The laughter is contagious. We are literally cracking up, coming apart, falling into the deep, soaring into the heavens. For this moment, I’m not angry. Not afraid. Not sad. I just am. I see my fractured image reflected in the lake of forever.

This is what I know: If you want to hear the voice of the Creator, fit your ear against a smooth stone. If you want to taste the goodness of the Universe, take a tiny pinch of soil and touch it to your tongue. And if you want to glimpse eternity, find some malarkey and laugh until you cry. Let your salty tears roll down and splash into the tide-torn heart of the surging, pulsing, laughing God.

Seven Onions

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Today, I harvested the last seven onions, but the beets and carrots can wait in the dark autumn dirt a while. Frost only makes them sweeter. There’s a chill in the air. I wore my mother’s jacket. She died three days ago, against her will, but in the end, peaceful. That damn body betrayed her–the one she’d shoved into high gear every morning until it gave out. As I signed the papers, I knew she wanted that body burned to ash and flung into the wind–the same wind she knew as well as she knew the neighbors over the years–but I cried anyway.

I am in mourning. God has flitted in and out, respectful but adamant as I rail against her awful ways of doing things. The ways of God. The ways of God. What does that mean?

God is trying to be a soft barrier between me and despair. I prefer despair. God strokes my hair the same way I stroked Mom’s as she lay unconscious, her spirit moving slowly up the other side of the ravine between life and death. I push God’s hand away, angry and ashamed.

“Don’t do that,” I say.

“Okay,” God says. She tears up with me. “I loved her too, you know.”

I nod, reluctant. “I know. But you have a strange way of showing it.”

God nods. “The birds have started migrating,” she says. “I suspect another brutal winter is on the way.” I frown. The unstable shelter of the seasons is little comfort.

I look into the craggy face, the sad eyes, and realize that for God, this might be the hundred-millionth brutal winter. For God, everyone is dying, their bodies transforming, their warm, frightened souls flowing to where they will be known and welcomed. I want to know how. I want to know why. But God’s face is etched with a kind of wisdom I’m not ready for. I look away. Instead, I look to the hills. They are my oldest friends. I trust them. “Take care of her,” I tell them. “Make sure she finds her way.”

Wink

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In the lecture hall, down near the podium, I spotted God floating among the performers. I waved, and God winked–a massive slow wink that dimmed the lights and blew my head open. Time slowed to the pace of a heartbeat and then circled like the dancers, like the globe, like the unfamiliar sun. The Maori and Lakota, the Bashada, Samurai, Brahmins, Untouchables, Princes and Queens. Unsung women and disproportionate men.

After so much travel, so many miles, I was feeling alien. Insignificant.  But the wink changed all that. I fell into the inner vision of first home, the fiery cosmos, the place where the Creator serves breakfast and wipes his hands on a dirty apron, happy to watch us eat. The place where the tables are long and the memories longer. The place where we remember that once, we were protons and neutrons, innocent waifs, glowing translucent blue and delicate ivory. We weren’t afraid, cradled in such a vast vision; there was no reason, no excuse, no boundary. Just the womb of God, waves breaking, white noise.

And even now, billions of years later, we’re sand on the shore, dust underfoot, waiting for the wind to lift us. We’re so small we can hardly even see ourselves, hard at work, stubborn and vicious, achieving little—unaware that we are irritants on the perfect surface of God’s gaze.

“Not exactly,” God interjected. “Not irritants. Just reasons to wink. So many reasons to wink.”

“I know,” I admitted. “I said that because I irritate myself. And these people irritate me to no end.”

“Jet lag?” God asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “And pavement and single-paned windows. Traffic and tariffs and men who’ve forgotten who they are.”

“I’m sure you’d be happy to remind them, heh?” God sounded Canadian. He elbowed me in the side.

“You bet I would,” I said, arms crossed, starting to see the humor. “And I’m sure that’d be well-received, don’t you think? Most men love instruction from feisty old white women.”

God and I had a good laugh, though I admit I had the thought, “But who are they going to listen to?” As far as I know, God ignored this mental query. He gradually rejoined the warriors dancing in the inferno, weapons ready, drums beating, feathers rising like sparks.

So much, I don’t know. But this, I’ve recently discovered: At the edge of the lower world, the little brown birds will eat from your hand if you hold absolutely still and you offer something they recognize as food.

 

A Dog in the Fight

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God and I don’t usually get into theological discussions, but recent claims on Facebook—that we shouldn’t worry because GOD IS IN CONTROL—forced me to bring this up. “Are humans autonomous?” I asked God.

“Yes,” God answered, looking a little wary. “It’s a package deal. Comes with consciousness.”

“So when people say ‘You, Oh Most Amazing, Most Loving, Most Majestic Creator, YOU are in control’…”

God interrupted. “They’re wrong. You know I’m the biggest forgiver you could ever hope to meet, but I’m not a control freak. I made it possible for you to love each other and tend the earth responsibly. To save things and make things better. That’s my contribution.”

“So, um, you’re not going to do it for us? You’re not going to intervene? Even if we’re sinking like bags of rocks? Acting worse than pigs? Lying, torturing and starving each other?”

“Right. But you always have the option to save yourselves.”

“How?”

God looked impatient. Maybe even a little angry. “Haven’t I made this painfully clear?”

“You mean like, um, love our neighbors? Give our lives for our enemies? Share? Tell the truth? Ten Commandments. Golden Rule. All that?” I was stammering.

“Exactly. Do you watch the news at all? Do you think, even for a minute, I don’t LOVE the Rohingya? That I’m not starving with the 870 million who are hungry right now? Do you think it was ME who built nuclear bombs? You think I profit from gun sales? C’mon.”

I looked away. God ranted on. “You can’t be serious. Me, in control? What have you been smoking?”

I think God thought this was funny. I wasn’t laughing. God continued. “Okay, I’ll admit, I hold out hope that you’ll do my bidding, but I realize it’s damn hard to give all that you have to the poor, forgive everyone, stop building walls, stop amassing riches, stop hoarding weapons, and just hang out with me in the cloud of unknowing, unselfish, unbearable love.”

“But, God, aren’t you on my side?” I whined. This was my co-author, my sometimes gentle friend, cutting me no slack.

“No,” God said in a big voice. “No. No sides. Your football games? Your stunningly stupid, shortsighted selfishness? Your empire-building? Your big winners and dead losers? No. I have no dogs in your fights. No. NONE.”

God took a deep breath which led to a coughing fit due to the smoky air. I held still.

After some throat-clearing, God went on. “I do have one dog, though. She’s a rescue mutt. I call her Gracie. Look at those eyes.” God’s voice was playful and gruff. I looked. Huge brown eyes, liquid with love. Her fur was long and scruffy, her tail, wagging. God continued. “She’s not a fighter though. She’s a lover, aren’t you girl?” Gracie licked God’s hand. God leaned down and went nose to nose, soaking up some doggy kisses.

I waited. God’s head stayed down, but Gracie offered her paw, and we shook. She licked my hand. I threw a stick, she brought it back. I threw it again, she brought it back. One more time, she brought it back. And then they were gone and I was alone, but Gracie had left me a pile of sticks. Enough to last a lifetime.

New Shoes

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This morning, on the Stillwater, smoke from both the fires of Canada and the fires of hell invade my body and soul with every shallow in-breath, and I endure the artist at work–yesterday’s ashes glazing the face of granite into something too terrible to touch, too beautiful to behold.

Not long ago, I began to pack for yet another autumn transition. I picked the last of the purslane-choked green beans, pulled the onions, undid the hoses, and with sickening ambivalence, bought poison to deal with mice. Traps or poison? I’m not a rodent, but I’d rather be poisoned than trapped. If we had a decent God, we wouldn’t have to use our crude, projected empathy to make these wrenching decisions. Maybe we’d even feed the mice and marvel at the prodigious quantities of seashell pink offspring. Or maybe in the spirit of the grand circle of life, we’d learn to eat said offspring. A delicacy. Except for their tiny spasmodic appendages, curled baby mice do bear a remarkable resemblance to shrimp. Wait. That wouldn’t solve the problem.

Eat or be eaten. Poison or be poisoned. By and large, the weeds won this year. And now, forests are being blazed out of existence, flood waters gorge on land, and lives are lost. I sit in unearned comfort, grimly examining the karmic consequences of nonaction, trying to goad my flesh into movement, my mind into comprehension. It feels useless. Why bother? Such is my mood today.

Yesterday was a different story. I had new running shoes, and there’d been rain. And God, I know you don’t like it when I imply you’ve engaged in miracles for my sake, but it seemed you’d reduced the gravity along the highway where my stride was effortless and I bounded along like a deer, legs spring-loaded, heart lifted and extraordinarily light.

“It was the shoes,” God says.

“I don’t believe you,” I say.

And God laughs. I can barely see the big, sharp teeth through the haze, but I can hear the riotous sound of a happy God.

“No, really,” I say in my loudest voice. “I don’t believe you.”

“I know,” God says. “Next time, run in old shoes with rocks in your pocket.”

“Fine,” I say. “That’s just what I’ll do.”

“And what will you prove, darling?” God asks, suddenly all innocent and interested.

“Nothing,” I shout. “I’ll prove nothing. There’s nothing mortals can prove. You shift the odds, change the playing field, turn down the volume, distort the light. We’re mice in an endless maze. Where are you, God? That’s what I want to know. Where are you?”

“Sheesh, oh ye of little vision. Calm down. You cannot look anywhere I’m not. I’m the maze and the fire, the weeds and the water, the new shoes and the rocks. And by the way, you got a good deal on those Sauconys, but I liked the yellow Asics pretty well too.”