When the Choir Preaches Back

Sometimes I count my blessings; sometimes I count my years, and though I don’t like admitting it, sometimes I count the number of people I think of as willfully, proudly ignorant, and my mood sinks. But as dawn arrives and light asserts itself, my despair dissipates into benign speculation, and I am among the billions awaiting transitions no one can explain. I watch God in the fire and in the lines of frost across the windows evaporating directly into air. I watch God peacefully protesting greed, misogyny, and cruelty. I imagine my grandchildren and their grandchildren carrying genes across the great divides of life and death, and I am both stricken and intrigued. What could I possibly do to lessen the burdens and reduce the suffering to come?

God emerges gentle. Always gentle. Always sacrificial. Always self-assured. Kindling for the fire. Moisture for the frost. God surrounds me, stone tools, dead branches, herds of deer, flocks of sparrows, and a holy stillness in which I can rest. I don’t want to rest. I am aware of how easily I will break and burn and disappear. I want to speed down the runway and lift into a sky that will leave me unbroken and unchanged.

“If you reduce the suffering, you reduce the joy,” God speaks in everywhere voices. “If you take away the burdens, the bones soften. The understandings recede and the cost rises.”

“Hello, Old Friend,” I say. “Let’s not fight today. I won’t disagree or complain or act as if I know anything at all. Instead, could we fly? Could we walk through fire, find the garden, and open the gates?”

God laughs and lifts a million arms in praise. A multitude of God begins to sway to an inescapable beat; a galactic choir robed in sunrise crimson bursts into a seditious version of the Hallelujah Chorus; I’m not Mormon or Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, Jainist or Hindu, or anything defined beyond my tenuous friendship with God, but as I sidle up, my Friend throws a heavy velvet robe across my shoulders, and I join the altos. We sing the truths of repeated defeat. The roiling ocean of human sorrow buoys us up, the crashing waves, a steady percussion section. Hundreds of soaring sopranos lift off and take the high notes with them, but like spring, they promise to return.

On Being Mean and Hateful

“God, why is being mean so damn gratifying and easy?” I asked from the depths of a very bad mood.

“Because you’re angry,” God answered. “Anger is like a heat-sensing missile. It scans for a target. Once zeroed in, it feels good to release that toxin and blow things up.”

I chewed my thumbnail and said nothing. Questions came to mind, but I didn’t want a sermon. God can be so redundant. Blah blah blah, forgiveness. Blah blah blah, compassion. Blah blah blah, self-sacrifice. It gets old. Aren’t we built for survival? Aren’t we meant for greater things than washing windows, vacuuming, hauling other people’s garbage, and groveling? Why are there winners? Losers? Why is war seductive? Entertaining?

“Don’t answer!” I yelled as God opened his mouth. He closed it and softened into a smiling grandmother with shining black skin, plaited silver hair, and big white teeth. I watched her Mona Lisa smile warily, and my eyes narrowed to slits. “Get away from me,” I said.

She dipped her head and softened into her younger self, supple and innocent. I glared and declared, “I don’t know you.” She bowed her head and softened into a little boy with a baseball mitt and a dream. I shook my head menacingly and frowned at his wistful face. His eyes held mine as he softened into a naked baby kicking in the sunlight that poured through my unwashed windows.

This helplessness sickened me. Complete and utter vulnerability, displayed without a shred of pride or self-consciousness; arms waving, legs kicking, holy drool slipping down the sides of those fat cheeks, landing where new planets will someday emerge, perfectly round.

I backed away. “Don’t make me see, God. Don’t make me old or poor or weak,” I begged, staring down at the infant. “I want to play nice in Eden with very pretty people. I want to be fully understood and adored just as I am. If you’re God, you love me, right? So you can do this. I need a shortcut. A yellow brick road. A red carpet.”

The baby hardened and cracked into fragments of granite, jasper, onyx, and light. The earth beneath my feet was no longer firm. Yoga instructors always say to notice the earth supporting me, but it had become shifting sand. I covered my nose and mouth and dropped to my knees. “Ah, fuck,” I muttered. “I don’t want to deal with myself.”

“You surprise me,” God said from the pile of broken stone. “I thought you were tougher than that.”

“Like I have a choice,” I said, as I turned my face toward the voice.

“Exactly,” God said. “Like you have a choice.”

The Long Gray Bird

The long gray bird is back with her disconnected head and graceful wing. She defines space that would otherwise be undefined, and she does so without much deliberation. She could have easily been compost or firewood which would have been fine. But for now, she’s an expression of God and grace, small nails, and a blank wall.

Last night on the news, I saw a soldier in combat fatigues: helmet, rifle, boots. He was sitting vacant-faced on the steps of a bombed-out building, the dark child beside him barely clad. Neither of them will ever find their way to my easy world. In fact, they may not even make it home.

I sleep, and in my dream, I welcome them. They are God. To the Soldier I say, “God, darling. You are beautiful and deadly. I wish you were obsolete.” To the Child I say, “Get up and run. It’s not safe here.” The Soldier looks me in the eye and hands me his rifle. “You cannot define the space around me,” he says. “I have to do that myself.” He lifts the Child into his arms with a certain finality and cushions her head safe against his chest.

I don’t know where they’re going or if they’ll return. I wave and try my best to smile, but the departure leaves me bereft, without purpose or direction.

“God,” I whisper, awake and facing morning, “You know I’d like to extend my reach; do things that make me feel important and complete. I’d like to turn the tide of hate into an ocean of love. I’d like to make the fear go away.”

The God of early morning is often soft, responsive to my naïve and narcissistic longings. She is patient. Unafraid. She knows that in any given moment, I could pull her off the wall, snap her neck, and put her in the woodstove, thus ending the torment of hope. She laughs like smoke. She is the residue of a well-lived life, the stubble in the field. She is sapling and ash, beginning and end, warrior and rose.

“I know,” the God of early morning whispers back. I hear the murmur of wings as the gray bird takes flight. “I am of your doing, and you of mine.” I nod, and again I wave and smile. But this time, no grief. I’m at peace with the leavings. Joyful, even. There is little doubt that in my next dream, I will learn to fly.

Placebo

God outright refused to help edit my first run of the godblog for this week. As Co-Author, that’s God’s prerogative, so I have bowed to the forces within and without and shelved the draft about death and composting until God’s in a better mood. I may have to chew my left thumb off, but I will work until at least three hundred words have coalesced into what God and I mutually agree we should say this week. I have the vague notion that God wants to focus on hope.

“Vague notion?” God says. “C’mon. Do you think the placebo effect is an accident?”

This makes me laugh out loud. God knows how much I adore the placebo effect–the authoritative administration of an inert nothingness that, by virtue of belief, triggers healing. Good medical research is designed to factor out the placebo effect. This tickles me. Faith has to be factored out because it is such a powerful force in and of itself.

Humans have evolved to believe in things. It isn’t an afterthought or a design flaw. The leaps of faith we make are sometimes comical, sometimes tragic, often pure magic. But they all point to the nature of the Grand Leaper, my friend God, whose greatest leap of faith ever was giving us some skin in the game. Giving us a say in the matter. Giving us choice. The stakes are high. Will we poison ourselves to extinction? Will we make war until there’s no one left to kill? Will greed remain ascendant and poverty continue to be viewed as deserved?

“Ah hem.” God clears his raspy old throat and hands me a cue card with the word “Hope” scrawled across the entire surface, which is sky. Which is my face reflected in all that I have. Which is you, reading. Which is a child eating a steaming bowl of sustaining gruel. That child will arise. Her name is Enough. Her name is Charity. Her name is Least Among You, and her first words are always, “Do not be afraid.” God surrounds her malnourished frame in his huge hands. The child relaxes and falls asleep, curled in the soft flesh of tomorrow. I’m surprised that such a tiny little thing can make God cry.

“It’s your move,” God whispers a little choked up. My heart skips a beat. I know it’s a trick. I take a deep breath and the right response comes to me.

“No,” I whisper back, “It’s our move. I’ll wait until she’s rested.” God grins and wipes his nose, and I add, “I know what you’re thinking. Old dog learns new trick.”  I give my own chest a congratulatory thump.

God’s grin widens until his face cracks into the full day ahead. My temporal self is sorely tempted to react and run amok, but I don’t. God will wait, and I will wait. The child will sleep.

Male Enhancement Products

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God and I were driving across town. Traffic slowed in front of the adult fantasy shop, and we noticed a young woman with a pink and black backpack pushing the buzzer so she could go in. Maybe she worked there. Maybe she was on her way to buy a morning orgasm. Who knows? The neon sign scrolled through various messages. One informed us that male enhancement products were on sale. I winked at God and said “Shall I pull over?”

God followed my gaze, read the sign, glanced down at his godly crotch, and started giggling. It was a golden moment. We laughed until tears were running down our faces and I was in danger of wetting my pants. “Oh, man, I needed that,” God said.

“Me, too,” I said. Earlier we’d both been sickened by the news that various “faith” systems had decided to ratchet up their wars on women and those with various sexual identities.

“It sure is easy for your species to hate,” God said. “Pick on the little ones, the different ones. Force women to carry embryos into full baby bodies and give births they don’t want to give. Define those differences as wrong. Declare who’s going to hell.”

“Yeah, I know, God. I know. And even worse, they think they’re doing your work for you.” I paused and added, “Well, at least some of them do.”

“Do they?” God said, shaking his head. “How in the world do they get that idea?”

“Didn’t you program us to reproduce at all costs? So a gay person is defying the plan, right? And a woman who doesn’t want to carry a fertilized egg to full term…she’s not fulfilling her role either. Right? Isn’t it handy how the will of God aligns politically with those seeking domination?” My voice was surly.

“Sarcasm is not going to solve this, sweetie,” God said. Our happy mood was dissipating. God stared out the window as I timed the next green light. Suddenly, God slapped the dashboard. I looked over, startled. His face was a mixture of dark and darker.

“Male enhancement products,” he muttered.

He was rubbing his forehead like a man deep in grief. The pain was palpable.

“What, God?” I said gently. “What’s going on?”

“That’s what’s obliterating…that’s what’s powering this tidal wave of hatred and destruction.”

“What?” I said, not quite following

“Weapons,” God said. “What are they? Male enhancement products. Laws controlling women’s bodies? Male enhancement products. Harsh judgments directed at anyone who’s not heterosexual? Male enhancement products.” God’s voice was grim and firm. “Pull over. I have to go.”

As I searched for a safe place to stop, God melted, and the minute the wheels stopped turning, God poured himself under the car door and became women. Old women, young women, ugly women, bent and hungry, raped, beaten, forsaken, controlled, lied to, shamed, and tricked. Women. I rolled down my window and surveyed the landscape. The crowd swelled as the gays and lesbians, the trans and non-binaries materialized. So defiant. So brave. So fragile. So God.

“God!!” I yelled. “Get back in the car. Stop being those people. You’re going to get hurt.”

“I know, honey,” the Crowd of God roared. “That’s how this works.”

 

Pieces

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Stirring a small white cup of thick gruel with arthritic brown hands, God glanced up at me and smiled. She was missing some teeth and her dark oily hair was mostly tucked under a tattered scarf. I knew she was going to offer me that cup, and I didn’t want to take it. Usually, God’s offers are nicer than that, and I still refuse them on a regular basis.

My eyes began to water from the strong spices in the air. I was certain whatever was in that cup would sear my throat and leave me begging for a crust of bread to calm the fire. Birds of prey circled overhead. The ominous light of pre-dawn settled on the hills as I tried to find a path that would take me safely away from this insistent old woman. I knew there was no such path, but still, I searched. What I found was a large troop of frantic fools that looked a lot like me. A pool of living mirrors, selfish and afraid.

“Well, shit,” I said. I rarely use that word, but there it was. I’d ambushed myself. With no pretense of gratitude, I took the cup from her steady hand and gulped down the terrifying liquid. It burned its way to my center, thick as blood.

Those who love me came with bread, broken and ready. I ate. Another harsh day had arrived, but I was nourished. I roared. I punched the air. I ran my hot red psyche into the nearest wall at full speed and shattered myself into jagged little pieces. Pretty little pieces. Useful little pieces. That’s the best I have to offer. Useful little pieces. And usually, by noon or so, I’m okay with that.

After the shooting

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In the morning, I say “Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God,” and hold my hands on my heart and push inward. But I am not praying. God is very busy helping people who are still alive find ways to stay that way for a while. To cope. I don’t want to interrupt.

But suddenly, here she is, eating muffins, admiring my recent artwork.

“What in the world are you doing?” I ask. “Get back to the places you’re needed. I’m okay.”

“I know,” God said. “It’s the muffins. They’re delicious. And I love how you arranged those little rocks. I remember when that heart-shaped one surfaced eons ago. Good eyes.”

God settles into the outdated bent-wood rocking chair and helps herself to another muffin. I give her the last of my cold brew coffee, and sit. I’ve been a therapist long enough to know this is one of those times it’s better to wait.

Sure enough, the tears begin. I should’ve realized how bruised she’d be, and how drained. We throw a whole lot of shit at God. And we throw it hard and mean. I let her cry a while, offering my ugly collection of hankies, confessing my part in it all, and silently begging her to pull it together.

After a bit, she lifts her head. “I guess you’ve noticed some trends that don’t bode well for you all,” she says, sighing. “Violence isn’t new, just deadlier. And ignorance has gotten so damn popular. Almost no one tries to think anymore. And vengeful hatred is all the rage.”

I nod, miserable. God rocks rhythmically, sipping coffee, wiping her nose, staring out the window. The leaves have outdone themselves this year. Such brilliant declarations of transition and death. Soon, they’ll fall and become the elements they once were. Another generation will unfurl in the spring, lime green and innocent. This, of course, assumes intact roots. Food and water. Light. I close my eyes and imagine myself vivid magenta, gleaming gold, letting go. A transitory entity that prays and listens. A tattered shelter. A friend of God’s.

The chair is empty. The muffins, gone. And I cannot find the heart-shaped rock. I hope she took it with her.

Mirrors

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The mirror this morning was blurry. Dim light showing only the essential outline of myself. I wanted no further clarity. “Does anyone want to see clearly?” I ask myself. “We’ve all fallen in love with this hazy image of ourselves. Aren’t we pretty? Aren’t we smart? Aren’t we worth saving?”

“Well, yes and no,” God says, startling me. I don’t know why God has to be so stealthy sometimes. In certain contexts, it could be devastating, but I’ve grown grudgingly accustomed to these sudden visits.

“Hello, God,” I say, not in a friendly tone.

“Hello, my dear,” God says. Is there mockery in that tone? Is that a smirk on God’s face? Why are the clouds gathering? Why are the birds so jittery? Is this it? Was it a mistake to paint the old bicycles bright colors and pretend they could fly? Was it sinful to spray the weeds with poison? Trap the mice? Carve out a selfish sanctuary, filled with food, and sustenance for my soul? Am I violating the stone when I slice it open to see what’s inside? Am I a fool to drink dark beer at dawn? Tell me, God. What is it?

“Good lord, what’s wrong with you?” God says. “Calm down.”

“I can’t,” I say. “Your plans frighten me. Your ways enrage me. There are too many stars. I don’t know who I am.”

“That’s totally understandable,” God says in a calming voice. “Perhaps it would be better if you suspended your faith for a while. I don’t need you to believe in me, you know. You can cut me loose. I’ll be fine.”

I swallow and keep my stinging eyes closed. “What good would that do?” I ask. “The sparrows will still eat the strawberries before they’re ripe. I’ll grow more feeble and gray. The children will blossom and fade. I won’t finish half of what I wish I could, and I doubt it would make me, um, whatever it is that I think I want.”

“Exactly,” God says. “Exactly. And I’ll love you, either way. I actually don’t need anyone to believe in me. The belief that matters flows the other way.”

The blurred mirror begins to splinter, cracks threading their way through the once-solid glass. My image is webbed with tributaries. Then it disappears as shards rain down, sharp and dangerous. I sweep them up and set out for the landfill, where it’s free to get rid of almost anything. Shattered lives, broken glass, carcasses of little yellow birds.

Sometimes, the guy at the dump saves something back for one more round of usefulness. Maybe, today, there’ll be a treasure to redeem. Or maybe not. I’ll be fine, either way.

A Smidgen of Atheism

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“Here’s something funny to think about,” God said, lounging on the motel bed in Bozeman, shedding innocent dark skin on the bleached sheets. “Short bursts of exercise are good for aging muscles, and short bursts of atheism are good for the soul.”

The previous occupants of this room had left the alarm set. It went off early, an unpleasant throbbing tone, and I was not in a good mood. I was tired. My mind didn’t want to think. My body didn’t want to move.

“Why do you come by like this?” I asked, unwilling to consider anything but my irritation.

God sat up, beautifully naked. She draped herself loosely in the manicured landscaping outside the window, and quoted Ayn Rand. “That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.”

God stressed the words “your mind’s freedom to think or not”

I put a pillow over my head and curled fetal under the covers. God must have read Martina’s blog. I’ve been worried about the state of humanity, and human consciousness for a long time. Are we more than our genes? Is anything our fault, or is it all our fault? I blame God for this confusion. Maybe we’ve evolved too fast. We seem to have stopped thinking. We seem to be arrested, elevating comfort over compassion, allowing simple confusion to muddy the clear waters of the complicated truth. Endorsing selfishness as holy.

I pulled the pillow tighter, but it disintegrated. The flimsy walls fell, and children from Venezuela, Syria, Arizona and Maine, children from concentration camps, war zones, and desperate homes, traded, displaced, abused, malnourished, and frightened–they crawled into bed with me. They should’ve at least bounced and played, but they were too hungry. Too broken. Too angry. They found my left-over Indian food in the wasteful individual refrigerator and smeared me with it. It burned my flesh. I screamed for mercy, for healing. I pleaded with the universe for food and shelter, sanity, wisdom, consciousness, humility, and an end to human greed. Or at least insight into my own.

There’s got to be something, I said to myself, frantic. Something I can do.

I felt as though I was going mad. The small gestures I imagined fell into a black pit of irrelevance. Too little, too late. The children grew quiet and sat with me.

God looked on. And on. The meticulously-planted flowers continued to bloom.

 

 

Allah’s Will

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Some people wear tight underwear on purpose. It doesn’t slide around as much, and certain appendages are less likely to droop, sway, wobble, or escape. But through the eons, God, the amazing artist has tinkered with the cosmos, including the design of the human body, so maybe it’s just the way it’s supposed to be for now. Therefore, are bodily interferences and management strategies a violation of God’s will? Like tight underwear? Or sexy underwear, or decidedly unsexy underwear? Or underwear itself? If those ancient Jewish authors got it right, Yahweh wasn’t all that impressed with fig leaves.

My mind wanders to tattoos and piercing. Spandex and Lasik. Obesity and anorexia. Facelifts and Viagra. To the death penalty and compassionate assistance when someone is ready to die. Birth control and abortion. Driving while tired, jogging in smog. Bikinis and burkas. Stents and suppositories. Aren’t we humans something else? We replace hips, drug ourselves silly, elevate or depress our moods, and bleach our teeth to neon white. We can prolong “life” with machines, almost indefinitely. Who’s to say how much fussing, prolonging, shortening, fattening, thinning, covering or uncovering is God’s will?

Our lives and bodies are gifts. I close my eyes, cross my legs, focus on breathing, and ask the Giver about gift management. The Giver wraps her arms around her enormous belly and winks. She’s always available, but always giving birth. I tiptoe around and watch.

I open my eyes and see the branches of the plum tree swaying under the weight of a scolding blackbird. Gifts. I see the onions and the peas growing. I see the river roaring by. Gifts. I know I need to pull weeds and water the garden. Gifts that need my attention. Gifts that I treasure or neglect.

It occurs to me that once I’ve given my beloved a gift, it’s his–to use or not use. To paint, hang, feed, cover or uncover, play with, give away, store, or use up. I might be sad if he doesn’t say thanks, or doesn’t like the gift, but I do not take it back or control it. That would be incredibly rude.

And as I deepen into this inquiry, it occurs to me that I, myself, have given birth. Twice. And after it was given, I worked hard to give these new lives what they needed to survive, and what they needed to gradually assume the autonomy that distinguishes human life.

I know the river, gift that it is, could kill me without a second glance if I just waded in right now. I won’t be wading in anytime soon. My life is mine. Other people’s lives are theirs. My body is mine. Other people’s bodies are theirs. Gifts. I decorate, doodle, abuse, and elevate. I stretch, exercise, and pamper. I overeat, undereat, and forget to hydrate. I imbibe in limited quantities of dark beer.

Someday, I will die. I may have a say in how and when. I may not. We live, temporarily, in a risky universe, and then we move on. That’s how it is. That’s how it should be. The Giver takes a minute, between contractions, to squeeze my hand. The beauty of being breaks my heart. She understands, and makes room for me in her bed. The thunder is deafening, but I no longer need to hear.