Your mama told you there’d be days like this

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In the southeast corner of my life there’s a perfect circle of stone visible to anyone uphill or airborne. The northern boundary is an entirely different story. It’s a river that shapeshifts with the seasons. Water washes over the fallen cottonwood, gouges the mountain, and settles in deadly eddies.

Today, it is all too much, and paradoxically, nothing is ever enough. Not God, not people, not earth, not sky. The small and large injustices plaguing me have metastasized and lit the landscape with a cold, blue fire.

Some small part of me lives in fear. Lives in fear. Lives in fear. I’d like to kill off that part and live with more grace. That part would like to kill me off and reign as a vicious sovereign. Usually, I keep her underground and undernourished. Today, I am sorely tempted to throw her red meat. Why not? The world is awash in sovereigns eating red meat. I myself am mostly red meat.

God is a stretch of long gray sky, atmospherically unstable. Dead in the way of winter. The first signs of spring arrive from the grave—weeds, spiders, mud, and hunger. Mating rituals begin. Some will die showing off their antlers or plumage. Some will be passed over and never bear fruit. So what? That’s what I say. So what?

The gardener has turned the soil. The physician has opened a vein. The old woman is wearing her apron. The migrant has crossed the border. A child has been born. They are all doomed with the dignity of temporary flesh, but as they hold hands, as the world turns, as the rivers flow, as rocks hold firm, as the ozone shreds, as the species evolve, as fatal floods fertilize and recede, a certain and tragic joy remains. I want none of it.

For now I will stubbornly inhabit the illusion of autonomy. God has agreed to stay west of here, busily mixing the colors that will mark the setting of this particular sun. “Thank you,” I murmur, aware of the costs of such holy self-restraint. God nods.

No one goes it alone, but glittering fools pretend otherwise, and sometimes, I join them, peering at the world through my homemade periscope. With carefully-placed mirrors, you can create endless images of the same thing.

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.”