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

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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

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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.”

 

Nada

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God wasn’t present in any noticeable way this morning, but I had that spidey sense she was hovering somewhere close by. I thought maybe a little chatter would draw her out. “God,” I said. “Sometimes you and I have a communication gap. And I can see why. There’s me. An average, timeworn human–two bumpy hands, a couple of creaky knees, an increasingly unreliable memory, sporadic compassion–and then there’s you. From what we’ve observed so far, you seem to have created 10 billion galaxies, each of which averages 100 billion stars—one, (one!) of which is the fiery orb asserting itself in my own little sky right now.” I tried looking deeply impressed. No response.

“You are absurdly, incomprehensibly intangible, nonbodied, nonbound. You are without need for breath. You are breath. You are beyond time. It’s a toy of yours. You have no name and every name. You are the namer. We have little to nothing in common, but here you are, hanging around.” I thought maybe admitting I could sense her would cause a response. Nope.

“God, look,” I said. “You’ve always treated us humans with respect, even when we amputate compassion, act like idiots, and appropriate the idea of you for our own ends. I wish we didn’t do that, but you have to admit you’re difficult, you big old lunk of creativity. You tiny speck, you source of suffering and disaster, comfort and shelter. You ladybug, sea monster, apple fallen close to the tree. You infectious laugher, chill of death, you decomposer. You teller of the final truth. Most of us don’t like the real you very much.

“I know,” God said, finally speaking up. “But I’m grateful when I can absorb even a little bit of liking. I make do with very little.”

“Someday, I won’t exist,” I said. “Then what?”

“Do I exist?” God answered.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Then, darling, we have something in common after all, don’t we?” God took a long swig of an awful tasting green smoothie I’d made and spit it back in the cup.

“Good lord!” she said. “Why in the world do you drink things like this?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “In fact, right now, I know nothing.”

“Excellent answer,” God said. “You’re lying, but that’s okay. It’s an aspirational nothingness. Another thing that we might have in common. Eventually.”

I thought about that for a minute. Yes, I know nothing for certain, but I speculate endlessly, grabbing what appears to be solid, holding on for dear life. We are splintered, me and God. But there’s something. Something. Or maybe I have it wrong. There’s Nothing. A deep, resonant Nothing where our trueness will finally be at peace.

“Could you give me some space?” I asked God. “Today, you’re too much.”

God gave me a regal nod and complied. In the dead silence, I was as bereft as I’ve ever been. And as loved. And as complete.

When God Is Old

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God was so old today, I hardly recognized him. Not a vision of loveliness, by any stretch. But should God be lovely? Youthful? Sexy? Yes, in my opinion, that would be nicer. But I didn’t turn away. I gazed on the decrepit body, looked into eyes filmy with cataracts. Tolerated the musty odor. Sank my teeth into the putrid truth of decline, flesh draped loosely on frail bones, a framework coming apart.

“What’re you up to?” I asked with false cheeriness, hoping for a rapid transformation. God can do that—one thing one moment, another the next. In the blink of an eye, God can go from bird to mosquito, river to refugee, pauper to king. But the only blink today was a slow one, as God’s focus landed laboriously on me.

“Hi, stranger,” he said, with a wry smile. That was all it took to transform my feeble friendliness into open hostility. This passive-aggressive, accusatory, guilt-inducing shriveled up mockery of life, insinuating I hadn’t been visiting him enough? Acting as though we’re such good friends, like I should visit every day, like I should move in, like I owed him something? I sat silent, but I fumed inside. How dare he try to prevail on my time? I have a life, you know. Why is he old like this?

But with God, if you think it, you may as well say it. His head dropped to his chest, clearly hurt, maybe even afraid. “Sorry,” he said, drawing into himself even further.

I was stricken and ashamed. God weathers all sorts of rejections, but mine seemed to cause him real pain. “No, I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it. I calmed myself and waited for him to lift his head again. I showed him pictures of the grandchildren and garden. I gave him three small beets, an onion, and a large bouquet of deep green parsley. I reached over and patted his translucent hand. “When will this be over?” I asked, with the little patience I could muster.

He didn’t respond, but I knew the answer. Always. Never. God is a transitional verb, unconstrained. God is a hall of mirrors, a blaze of glory on a far horizon. A voluptuous virgin, a greasy-haired teen. But today and forever, God is an old, old man. None of this is acceptable to my primitive mind. My digital watch constantly flashes an ever-changing hour, but the knobby joints in my fingers still bend. God and I hold hands. He eventually nods off and I am free to go. I step into the slipstream of an apparent day, trying to accept the transitory nature of all things real.

 

An Email to God

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Yesterday, I got this email:

Dear Honest God,

I’m not sure how to reach you, so I’m sending this through your friend Rita.

I woke up at 3-something in the morning talking to you. Which is pretty odd since I don’t believe in you, and besides, you are Rita’s, not mine. I was talking with you about being a 72 year old woman – closer to my death than to my birth, although perhaps I am also reborn every day. You, of course, are ageless, so maybe you can’t relate. But if that’s true, what does “older than god” mean?

I have this fear which surfaces occasionally – especially at 3-am-ish, of getting old, losing my memory and my energy / strength. Losing my relevance in the world. Not that I was ever any big deal. My kids with their work and their marriages, kids and jobs and friends – well, I’m not that important any more. Side lined a bit.

My Buddhist brain chants placidly ” We are of a nature to grown old.. We are of a nature to die…” but another louder, more demanding part of my brain (at that hour) is saying “nononono” The image is of being on a big river, some big rocks ahead and then a big waterfall. And I can hear the roar of the falls….

I waited a bit, but then decided I was going to have to step in, so I wrote back:

 Dear Nancy,

So far, God has refused to email me. She’s an awful co-author—whimsical, contradictory, self-important, demanding, and sometimes frightening. She shows up on her own schedule, pesters me at all the wrong times, and provides few answers. But on the positive side, she doesn’t seem to care if anyone believes in her. She’s not needy in that way. And though humans judge “on her behalf”, I haven’t found a judgmental bone in her ephemeral body. Just infinite compassion for the human condition—a condition which includes an evolutionary leap into consciousness that we have trouble handling—thus that 3:00 AM torment of mortality, meaninglessness, and impending death.

I find comfort in the fact that I didn’t choose to be born. Likely, leaving the womb was terrifying, cataclysmic–something to resist. But I was born. From what I can gather, life’s a gift—mine to squander, live selfishly, cruelly, and in fear, or I can live  compassionately, generously, joyously…I can prolong it, or end it, or see what happens next. I can welcome the day or hide from it. And since I try to be as honest as God, I admit I do, or consider doing, all of the above. All of the above.

I used to think I wasn’t afraid to die, but I am. I would welcome eternal youth or at least less arthritis. But though we have choices, they are limited. I try to be at peace with aspects of being alive that I cannot fix or change—even if they totally suck. But one of my torments is this: could I fix more? Am I doing enough? This is where God comes in handy. I remind her I am NOT her, and therefore, it is her job to show me what to do—point me to a calling or two. Or not. I keep my ears tuned to loving frequencies and my eyes as open as I can.

Yes. Big bruising boulders. A roaring waterfalls. Our lives, a river. We drift along, occupying increasingly battered bodies and steadily declining minds. Sometimes, I like to maneuver to the shallow spots and dance. Or float on my back, find the sky, and dream. The raspberry harvest looks to be abundant this year.

Hope this helps.

Love,

Rita