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.

Illusions

Almost every morning, though I’m never quite sure why, I willingly rise to meet the occasion of dawn. Lately, I’ve been finding God already busy in the kitchen baking massive amounts of bread and eating chocolate between virtual meetings. Today, she’s humming to a shadowy companion who is also God. Above me, someone scuffles, below me someone coughs. They are also God. As usual, I’m surrounded, and as usual, I surrender—a prisoner of a war I don’t remember starting.

“Toast?” God asks and winks. “My inmates never go hungry.”

From the far corner of a certain cold reality, I am tempted to refuse. But I love breakfast. “Sure,” I say. “Thanks.” I pour my own coffee and situate myself where the news of the world murmurs in the background, not close enough to harm me—or so I think. But behold. It harms me anyway.

I have a friend who wastes no time. She gets up early for advanced instruction in her second language. Yesterday, she forgot the word for garlic and all was lost. But not really. We both know better. We grew up with Joni Mitchell. We were lucky.

Each day I am reminded of lilies as I dress myself. The petals of lilies hold moisture. If you crush them, the nectar of the gods will glisten in the palm of your unfamiliar hand, and you will ask forgiveness even if you’re sure you haven’t sinned. But how can anyone be sure?

God sits down for a breather, wiping flour dust across the front of her dark silk blouse. Her face is flushed and sweaty from leaning into the oven. So many loaves. So much redemption. “Uh-oh,” I say, as I try to brush the flour streaks off her chest. “You have to look good from the waist up. Remember?”

I offer her a hanky, feeling oddly chivalrous. She mops it across her forehead and gives it back dripping. I contemplate the holy sweat of God pooling in my hand. Could I use this hanky to absolve myself? The world? Could I water the broken lilies and restore them to their former glory?

“Eat your toast,” God smiles, her voice rich and motherly. “Just eat your toast.” She glances down at her smeared shirt and disappears, presumably to change. Maybe I’m supposed to entertain the other Gods and do the dishes. Maybe not. Their sufficiency is both reassuring and destabilizing. I’m never sure what I’m called to do so I make things up. In graduate school the professors said we should not act without a theory to undergird our actions. For some time now, my theory has been love. It’s a weak theory with limited explanatory power. That’s why I like it so much.

Flat Tire

“How do you measure success?” I asked God. “A weed-free garden? A billion dollars in savings? Well-behaved children? Unburned toast?”

“Nolite te bastardes carborundum,” God muttered as she pushed a strand of hair away from her sweaty face. She was trying to get a flat tire off her rig, but the lug nuts had been machine-tightened.

I watched in disbelief. “Just zap it with a bolt of lightning,” I said, exasperated. If there was ever a time for some well-aimed lightning, it was now. Our little world is in flames, our bodies in peril, and here’s God, trying to change a flat tire by herself, offering only a language-mangled quote as her version of success: Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Fine. “Which bastards?” I demanded as God tried to find a way to use her entire body weight on the lug wrench. Today, God was thin. I almost wondered if the bastards had already ground her down some, but that’s ridiculous. We all know the bastards are no match for even the thinnest of Gods, don’t we?

“Could you steady the jack?” God asked. “I’m going to try and jump on this damn wrench.”

“No,” I said. “That’s a terrible idea. Call AAA or something. You’re going to hurt yourself.” She hadn’t even blocked the jack very well. It was sinking into the soft ground. I put my hand on God’s bony old shoulder. She shrugged it off and stood to her full majestic height. A string bean of an angry God.

“Is your van available?” she snapped as she dropped the wrench. “I don’t have time to mess with this. I’ve got to go.” My old van burns a little oil and pulls slightly to the left, but it still hauls an impressive load and gets me where I need to go. I had plans today that involved the van, but I couldn’t deny the request. Ride along or stay home; we all know where God’s going, and it’s no place to go alone.

“Shotgun,” I said with a reluctant attempt at humor.

“Oh, that seat’s taken,” God replied. “Ahmaud’s riding up front.” I flinched and looked down. “No worries,” God added with a piercing look. “There’s plenty of room in the back.”

“But there are no seatbelts,” I protested, ashamed of myself.

 “There’s air,” God said grimly. “There’s air. Now, let’s go.”

Wrestling Match

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I’m lost in a pile of morning words, thrashing like a rainbow trout that has taken the bait, uncertain if I am a victim of catch and release or soon to sizzle. The bait? Fame and fortune. Vast influence. The ultimate saving of the planet. Or at least meaning beyond pulling the stubborn cheat grass in the raised beds. The strawberries are in trouble and the chives. Even the mint is being overtaken.

“What if I were the governor or a movie star?” I think to myself.

“You’d still die,” God thinks back.

“What if I were rich beyond measure?” I think to myself.

“You are,” God thinks back.

“But I could be richer,” I counter with narrow eyes.

“Sure, but why? Even the outer limits are limits.”

“I don’t like that.” I shook my head.

“I know.” God smiled.

So apparently this day is going to inch forward and end–like every other day and no other day. It’s hardly begun, but as I argue with God, each moment slips quietly into the past. I watch the wind move the new leaves. They’re relatively secure for the coming season, assuming no tornadoes or killing frosts. What a brilliant celebration of all that is transitory.

“God,” I said, “You are a pain in the butt.”

“So are you,” God said as she sat down in one of the chairs that scratch the floor if you move around very much.

“What if I bought a camper van and drove to DC and parked and protested for the rest of my life? Huh? What then? Would that fix things? What if I piled my possessions on the sidewalk and labeled them ‘FREE’? What if I shaved my head and wore a robe? What if I climbed a tree and sat in the limbs on hunger strike? What if I chained myself to the wall? What if I gave everyone the right kind of light bulb? What if I broke all the glass in sight, shattering everyone’s phony security? What if, God? What if?”

“Sure,” God said. “Those all sound feasible. Which wall and how big of chain?”

I swore and threw my beer bottle at God. God ducked, spun around, and rammed a shoulder into my stomach. We fell like children wrestling in green grass and dandelion fluff. We shouted and shrieked in glee, startling a magpie and the neighbors. Our molecules were drunk on a bacterial invasion that made us come apart. To my surprise, I liked disintegrating. God and me. Me and God. The Great I AM. The Jokester, the Coyote, the Source of All That Is. And me. Me.

“Don’t forget the bacteria,” God said as we lied on our backs, panting. I shrugged.

“You know, God, I’m kind of artistic,” I said.

“True,” God said. “Maybe go with that.”

 

Followers

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“Hey God, look,” I said, pointing at my email. “We got another follower.” My coauthor feigned deafness and pointed east toward the rising sun.

“What?” I asked. “You want the blinds up?” She nodded. I complied and continued, my voice less certain. “You know we have people who read about our chats, right?” God looked at me. It wasn’t an encouraging look, but I didn’t let up. “We have over a hundred and…”

“So?” God interrupted, drilling directly into my own deeper questions. “And you know there are literally billions of blogs, right? If words were food, there’d be no hunger,” she said with a sigh that I interpreted as judgement.

“Yeah,” I snapped. “And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Dust swirled in the aggressive light streaming into the room–glittering little particles of burned wood, dead skin, pulverized top soil. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Words to words. Ideas to ideas. I wanted to scream and rip my insides out. This can’t be it. This can’t be all.

“It’s not,” God said. “It’s not all. It never is. Get in the old white car and drive. Find a new horizon.”

I teared up. God had called my bluff. “I can’t,” I said, sorrowful. “I just can’t. This is my life. The only one I have. The only one I will ever have. I can’t risk knowing any more than I already know. I’ve arrived too late to save anyone.”

“Of course you have,” God said. “And besides, one of the engine mounts has deteriorate. It’s not entirely safe. But the tires are new. The bread is fresh. And the bodies are broken…” She choked up. “The bodies are so, so broken.”

I rushed over, sorry I’d refused her offer, sorry I knew so little, sorry I was so limited and afraid. The way forward was obscure, but I rallied. “Don’t feel bad, God,” I said, grabbing what I could of her in my arms. “I’ll give it a try. There’s a little over half a tank. Maybe we could see where that takes us, okay?”

God looked surprised and nodded. “Nothing is as it appears,” she said slowly, in her best teacher voice. She held my chin in her hand. “There will be wind this afternoon. You can hide from it, chase it, or get out that dusty kite and fly it.”

I remembered a day at the beach, long ago. My landlubber mother admired the fancy kites and bought some for the grandchildren, but she was too timid to try one herself. I wondered how things might be different had she’d tried.

My reverie was interrupted by fast-approaching thunder. The earth was throbbing, the pulse of God coming up through my bones. I looked up. Hundreds of thousands of beggars were galloping across the horizon, their horses majestic, their tattered clothing flying like flags. They waved and cheered, the sky jagged with silhouettes. They were like ET going home. A stampede of jubilation.

Even though it was very cold, the old white car started right up. God hopped in, rubbing her hands.

I turned and faced her. “Where you headed, stranger?” I asked, hiding my fear behind a pathetic John Wayne accent. God threw back her head and laughed like that was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. This helped. I put the car in gear.

“You should never pick up a hitchhiker,” God said, still chuckling.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Buckle up.”

A Tribute to Stephen Hawking

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One of my least favorite visitors arrived, insistent on sharing my beer this morning. I offered green smoothie, but no, I’m sharing my beer. Which is fine. I opened the can yesterday, so it’s not very tasty, and there isn’t that much. I don’t know if Stephen Hawking drank beer, but my visitor claims to have known Stephen for a long time. Neither of these entities need to use the language of commoners but my visitor deigns to do so this morning. I can’t tell if the intent is conversation, or just showing off.

“I imagine that for you, 15 billion years is a long time,” my visitor says. “Duh,” I think as my skull elongates, making more space for my ever-diminishing brain. So many truths about life are hard to grasp. I can’t define a quark. In fact, I don’t even understand the nothingness of nothing. The zeroness of zero. Time is the name of something we’ve invented because our observations are linear. We’re the ones who once believed the earth was flat, remember? But maybe our grandmothers grasped something when they assured us “What goes around comes around.”

“Hey,” I said to my visitor. “Do you think it would be possible to compression compassion into something like Hawking’s Initial Singularity—an infinitely dense point that for some reason explodes and begins inflating itself outward, unstoppable?” I was imagining galaxies of compassion expanding into the cosmos. My visitor laughed. Apparently, there’s a problem having to do with black holes and things that shouldn’t escape black holes, but escape anyway, which has caused a rethinking of gravity. Now this, I understand. Aging causes a serious rethinking of gravity. And our political scene confirms that things have escaped black holes that absolutely should not have done so. Thus, gravity has failed us.

“Okay,” I said. “If we can’t count on gravity, then a big bang of compassion might lift the weight of our many transgressions and make us into beings determined to embody joy, or better yet, eudaimonia, right?” I thought my use of that term might impress my visitor. It’s Greek for a state of being somewhat like self-actualization….when we’ve achieved what we were meant to achieve, and done it damn well, and it feels fantastic.

I think the Dalai Lama would like this Big Bang of compassion idea, but my visitor has grown restless. In another realm, perhaps Stephen is waiting to compare notes. Along the timeline, one direction or another, there’s work to do. My head shrinks back, proportional to my shoulders. I’m glad I didn’t share the green smoothie. This day will be a long lope around our tiny sun, and by the end, we’ll all be a day closer and a day further away. Be well, essence of Stephen. We’ll carry on here as best we can.