Bucket Lists

Nearly all the windows in our house are oriented south for solar gain, but the view to the north is exceptionally nice. Our inner space reflects a set of values, givens, and limits. We’ve filled most rooms with books and rocks to hide lapses in judgment. Outside, the garden has gradually improved—I love repurposing metal coated with rust and twisted stumps that are not yet dust. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

“Yes,” God says, disrupting my existential mulling. “I love repurposing, too. Especially the fragile and distorted.”

“Hi there, God,” I say in a falsely chipper voice. “How about you be nice and take care of me today? Let’s exercise, write, do some art, drink green smoothies, and then after I’ve fallen fast asleep, how about you carry me gently into the next realm?”

“What?” God says in mock surprise. “You want to cash it in?”

“Well, yeah. Or, maybe,” I say. “I don’t like aging. I want an easy way out.”

“An easy way out,” God echoes, nodding. “Thank you for being honest with me.” This is a standard phrase therapists use when clients drop a verbal bomb about their homicidal, suicidal, malicious, vindictive, hopeless, violent urges and fantasies. It buys a little time.

But God doesn’t need to buy time. I’m suspicious. God already knows I’m as afraid of dying as the next person, but I’m deeply ambivalent about staying alive. Fighting for every last breath soaks up resources, drains loved ones, involves a fair amount of suffering, and has the same outcome. What’s a few more days or even years if they are filled with pain, struggle, and hardship? It may look heroic, but there are many ways to define heroic. Leaving willingly, gracefully, at the right time might be another definition. I glance sideways at God.

God glances back. “How’s that bucket list coming?” she asks, with a mischievous smile. “I know you’re inclined toward rescuing and saving, but don’t put the world, or yourself, on the list. You can save neither.”

“God, darling,” I say. “I don’t even know what ‘save’ means. And how’s your bucket list coming along?”

“Thanks for asking, sweetie,” God says. “But let’s talk about why you want to know.” This is another classic therapy maneuver; turn the question back on the client. But then God reaches over, takes a drink of my coffee, and salutes herself in one of my many mirrors. This is not a classic therapy move. Too invasive. Too intimate. Impulsively, I look straight at God, grab her cup, and take a swig. The coffee is hot, dark, and bitter. I want to spit it out, but God bows her head, palms together, touching her lips. I have the distinct impression she’s cheering me on, so I swallow and raise the cup. We look in the mirror together. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

The Harder Truths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shelter from the Storm

We are all a long way from home, dithering and dallying, trancelike automatons until something small or large loosens a stone in the foundation. Lost, but not completely lost. Found, but not yet found. Half-heartedly seeking what Bob Dylan called a lethal dose of salvation. Always a little messed up, though occasionally well-intended. For instance, I didn’t mean to leave the rice in the microwave overnight or the fish on the counter. I didn’t set out to drink all the cold brew and not start the next batch. But mea culpa—these are among my many thoughtless mistakes, and I hereby offer myself conditional forgiveness. I tell myself You’ve got to stay focused. And I add Straighten up and die right. Or is it lie right? Or fly right?

“I prefer fly right,” God says, settling in on the couch beside me. “And who put you in charge of forgiveness?

“Well, I’ve always assumed it was you,” I say, “And it’s a hell of a job.”

God smiles sympathetically and rifles through the mail, lists, receipts, masks, and rubber bands on the coffee table. I sit quietly, hoping for a bit of advice or assistance. My recent efforts to be more organized have fallen woefully short. The demons of distraction are delighted as I try various methods to get centered: Deep breathing (smoky air); beer (disorienting); garden (needs weeding, watering system not working); sticky notes (they lose their effectiveness when they’re everywhere). Lovingkindness meditation (too hard). I’m full of excuses and self-pity. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

“I wish I lived somewhere that forgiveness wasn’t even a necessary thing,” I say.

“Hmmm,” God says, absorbed in a sale flyer for energy-efficient window replacement. “I doubt it.”

And to top things off, the Text Predictions function in Word has suddenly turned itself on. I hate Word guessing at what I’m trying to say. I hate automatic updates. I hate passwords. I hate warring search engines. I hate smoky air, suicide bombers, drought, rice in the microwave, weeds in the garden, turkeys in the straw, refugees in the ocean, people willing to infect each other with viral hatred, flagrant ignorance, and this long and winding road that always leads me here. To the here and now of an ever-eroding present tense. I’m a child of the 60s.

That prophetic Beatles song locks down in my brain. “Don’t leave me waiting here,” I sing to God. I think I’m being funny, but God and I choke up. The Long and Winding Road was their last number-one single in the USA. So fitting. The unattainable. The end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end. The wandering is the journey. The trying is the failing. The failing reveals grace, and our last job is to die forgiven.

“I do know how hard it is, honey,” God says. I nod. We sit, staring out the recycled windows at the waning but beautiful garden.

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.”

Gifts

God’s car crept down our gravel lane as the evening light faded. I could see the headlights of the old Subaru dipping into the deep spring potholes that cause me such great vexation. We’ve spent an enormous amount of time and money on our roads, but it’s a constant fight. They stay smooth a nanosecond, and then the ruts reappear, the gravel sluffs off, the rain and snow do their thing, and the surface deteriorates. Nature likes neither straight lines nor smooth roads.

The Subaru backed in beside the new garage–the one that nearly blew down in the gale-force winds last month. God got out, stretched, opened all four doors, and lifted the tailgate. The car was packed to the brim with what appeared to be nicely wrapped gifts, but twilight was so thick I wasn’t sure. I grabbed my boots and my well-worn vest, a thick hat, and some ratty mittens. We’ve had a few warm days, but it drops well below freezing by nightfall.

“Hi, God,” I yelled as I stepped out the porch door. “Could you use some help?” I walked toward the car. God was bent over, body halfway into the back seat.

“Oh, hello,” God said, her head snapping up. “Happy Birthday! I was going to surprise you.”

I was instantly wary. My birthday is months away, and God knows this better than anyone. Something was up. “You’re early,” I said. “By about seven months.”

God grinned and filled my arms with odd, misshapen packages. I started toward the house, but God said, “Wait, Sweetie. The party’s out here.” We rolled river stones into a circle, and she built a fire out of fallen branches and rotting wood. Then the party commenced. God clapped and sang as I unwrapped the gifts, one by one, sobbing and laughing. The pain was equal to the joy, the absurdity of the blaze lightened the sadness of the ever-shrinking River, and I found that the Great Mysteries aren’t as menacing when shrouded with gratitude, perfectly situated in endless sky.

The embers were still glowing when God stood up and said, “Well, I better get going. That lane of yours is something. I can only drive about two miles an hour in this old rig.”

“Yeah, sorry,” I said, hypnotized by the fire. “It’s a never-ending battle. We’ll keep working on it.” I didn’t want God to leave or the party to end, but I know that’s how things work. I watched as the smoke followed God to the car. Then I managed to get to my feet, turn from flames, and say, “Thanks for coming, God. This was amazing.”

God got in, switched on the headlights, and rolled down the window to wave good-bye. “You bet,” she said. “Thanks for being home.”

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.

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.

Your Brewing Legacy

IMG_7296 (2)

From the label on my beer bottle comes this declaration: Intense characterful and bold, Guinness extra stout is the pure expression of our brewing legacy…this stout is a testament…I’m sitting with a Fragment of God (all I can handle with the morning news blathering in the background). I look at The Fragment and say, “And you, Holy Fragment? What’s the intense characterful pure expression of your brewing legacy?”

An eyebrow brow goes up, a half-smile forms.

“My brewing legacy? Stray dogs. Old friends. Branches awaiting spring, moving gracefully in my breath. Rich soil, oozing with transformation, black crows telling each other jokes. Snow, sky, birth, death, salt water, rain water, living water, drinking water, drowning water. The night of sleep you just had, the day you have before you. Thoughts and bodies, fears and fantasies, sex and sadness, solemn vows and frivolous skirts that sway and lift in the updraft of soft round hips. Sweat. Bones. Fools. Frogs. Paths to nowhere. Emus, armadillos, chowder, candlelight. Truth. Humility. Laughter.”

The Fragment is pleased with itself. “More?” it asks.

I lay my head down on the ugly dining table I recently bought. The edges are sharp, and it wobbles. It needs a lot of work. I no longer know if it’s worth the effort. This is my intense characterful pure expression of my brewing legacy: I cannot discern between that which should be rescued and reintegrated, that which has useful component parts, and that which should be allowed the dignity of disintegration. Too many things come home with me. And we sit together awaiting insight. Awaiting magic. Awaiting wisdom or the right shade of green.

Yesterday, I met a woman in an abandoned parking lot and bought her used brown curtains. They have little beads across the top. She had bright eyes, creamy skin, and an easy spirit. I am glad to remember her and have these curtains hanging where I can see them. They don’t match anything perfectly, but then what does? There’s something suspect about a perfect match.

The Fragment nods. “Like us,” it said. “We aren’t a perfect match.” It has assembled itself into a full, creative expression of life and has forgiven me again. I didn’t even ask.

 

On the Face of It

IMG_E7294 (2)

The most disconcerting image of God any of us has to deal with is the one in the bleary mirror every morning. True, God appears in a lot of unsavory, overwhelming, challenging guises. She flies in on a broomstick with a stolen dog, her backpack filled with ruby red slippers. He spreads himself brilliant across the evening sky and sprinkles himself into a billion stars He cries like a baby. With a hammer in her huge hands, she takes down wall after wall. I like watching. I like an arm’s-length God. But I don’t like that image of God in the mirror–that fatally flawed stretch of skin and bones I know from the inside out.

Sometimes, I try to avoid eye contact. Other times, I look for the innocence that was once there. I think I see vestiges of something beyond, but it’s elusive. Of course, I see my mother, my children, that genetic overlay. There are scars. Errant eyebrows. In my eyes, the piercing steely blue of the Irish.

“Hello,” I said to the mirror this morning. I do this sometimes. It creates a little distance. But for some reason, I added, “How can I be of service today?”

And to my surprise, my face answered.

“This day won’t be back,” it said. “This day is a guest. Be kind to it. This day will be a progression of sojourning moments, hoping for your attention. Remember, you are crystalized time.”

“Say what?” I said. “Crystalized what?”

“Time,” my face said. “You embody a fraction of the cosmos for a miniscule, monumental flash of linearity. And I must say, you wear it well.”

“Why, thank you,” I said back to my face. “But you know that’s not true.” I pointed to the worst of my imperfections. My face laughed. “You poor thing,” it said. “Those are your best features. Proof of your existence. Like I said, you’re crystalized time. And time is a craggy, wizened old thing. It likes nothing better than transporting imperfections into eternity where they are fodder for the greater good.”

“I didn’t sign on for this,” I said. But my face lifted into a smile, and I knew that in fact, I had signed on for this. For this day. For this chance. I inventoried my defects and damages, circling them like wagons around my fears. Then I enhanced the patchy curve of my eyebrows with a sharp clear line, removed some unwanted facial hair, and blew myself a kiss.

“Let’s roll, gentlemen,” I said to God and the pretty little moments at my feet. “We’ve got this.”