Uncle Bud

Just days ago our beloved Uncle Bud fell and did not regain consciousness. This past year his body and mind had started giving way, and our collective family grief began. Now it’s in full force. He’s gone.

Among his many achievements and passions, Uncle Bud was a master fisherman. I walk by the river, seeing it through his eyes, feeling his hand-rubbing oh-boy enthusiasm from the inside out. God walks alongside, quiet.

“It wasn’t all rosy,” she says. “For him or your mom…”

“I know,” I interrupt. “They didn’t talk about it much, but I know.”

Uncle Bud was generous, kind, and positive. Filled with good humor and gratitude. In contrast, his childhood included poverty and difficulties most people don’t have to face. In a moment of rare self-disclosure my mom told me that she and Uncle Bud had a pact: They would be there for each other, and they would never, ever give in to the negativity and deprivation they experienced as children.

I’ve known a lot of bitter, unkind people, who constantly blame others for their troubles. Their parents, the government, teachers, partners, neighbors, children—anyone but themselves. Fault-finding is a toxic hobby; blame obliterates gratitude. This is ironic because gratitude lifts the spirit. But for some reason, finding fault is simple, and blame is easy. Gratitude takes effort.

“Why is blaming so seductive?” I ask God.

“That’s a no-brainer,” God answers. “It’s lack of center. Lack of compassion. Insecure people crave admiration. They focus on what’s wrong around them to build themselves up. They’re takers, not givers. Enough is never enough and they are never to blame.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I feel that tension all the time.”

“What tension?” God asks with false innocence.

“I want to be positive and cool like Uncle Bud, but I also want everyone to notice how much I give, how hard I try. I tell myself it’d be good for them to be grateful. But that’s not how it works is it?”

“Being positive is a choice, and gratitude’s a choice. You can’t demand gratitude,” God says with a knowing grin. “Trust me. I’ve tried!”

 “Ha! You’re almost as funny as Uncle Bud.” I smile sadly.

“Thanks,” God says. “He really was amazing.” I nod. We watch the trout rise. And together we remember Uncle Bud with sadness, love, and deep well-earned, willingly offered gratitude for the courageous choices he made and all the ways he added happiness to the lives around him.

Aftermath

God flaps long black wings and lands gracefully on a large pile of debris while I gaze at what was once a fence but is now a line of uprooted bushes, broken promises, sticks, and mud. I wave. God takes human shape and waves back. A wide-brimmed hat shades her eyes from an ambitious morning sun. The FEMA people have come and gone.

We are creatures of the seasons, drawn along by the unstoppable orbit of earth and the long and short of things out of our control. We’ve learned to adapt. Even the meanest among us is glad for a cold drink on a hot day. Even the bravest does not welcome frostbite. When a season runs amok, and our shelters collapse, burn, or float away, we stand stripped of familiar, protective layers. Our dreaded smallness is revealed.

Both “aftermath” and “seasons” have etymological roots in agriculture. Knowing when to plant and knowing there will be a smaller, second crop available after harvest–these are as essential to survival as breathing—though not as automatic. I survey the aftermath of this season so far. It has severely eroded riverbanks, civility, and the pillars of our democracy.

I settle beside God. We say nothing. Not long ago, the flat surface we’re sitting on was a bridge plank from somewhere upstream. Now it’s woven into what the river has lifted, tossed, and left behind. It will not be a bridge again. I do not know which bridges will hold. I’m tired and afraid. God takes my hand, and we walk to the garden where seeds are belatedly sprouting. I am astonished to see the Lower Salmon River squash seeds I saved from last year making a go of it. I was sure they were rotten, infertile, or dead.

“Never say never,” God whispers, gently touching the sprouts.

“Never say always,” I counter. “I’m not sure what’s next, but it won’t be the same river, ever again.”

“Nothing is ever the same river,” God says.

I give God an ironic look and push my hand through her ephemeral chest. On the other side, there’s a new season as yet unnamed. At some point, I will call it home, but even so, it will be temporary.

God leans down, pulls a weed, and squints up at my wavering being. “There is no final resting place,” she says. “But the painted ponies love having riders like you.” She hands me a golden coin. I hand it back. She laughs, swallows the coin, and flies away. I have flotsam and jetsam to clear, wells to cleanse, and fires to build. So many fires to build.

Let the Mother Decide

I was yanked out of the waters of my first baptism by forceps used with such urgency that my head remained misshapen for years. I cry when I think about it, which isn’t often. Birth seems a silly thing to grieve, but my mother didn’t want a baby just then. She wasn’t ready. I was an accident, a burden arriving early. Not by her choice. Not by mine. She would have chosen an abortion, and I would have chosen to be aborted so I could have slid directly to the better place. This forced detour hasn’t been all that scenic. My mother should have been trusted. She knew. But the law required that she carry me from fetus to fruition. So here I am.

I’m lucky. Many born unwanted are never wanted. They remain objects of resentment and neglect. My parents had the internal means to adjust, and the external support needed to accept my birth, recalibrate, and carry on. But I think I speak for most fetuses. Straight to God is better. Let the mother decide.

My second baptism occurred when I was four. My hair was done up in little curls and sprayed with lacquer-like hairspray, so the sprinkling of water hardly ruined a thing. I’ve been told I went along with it, cheerful and apparently charming. I don’t remember much except that I was the focus of a somber ceremony, and it involved a God in white robes.

My third baptism occurred in my late teens, entirely my choice. It happened in a swimming pool in Connecticut, conducted by a fervent bleeding-heart Jesus freak in frayed cut-offs with an acne-scarred chest. The miracles, imagined and otherwise, continued, inspiring faith and madness in equal portions. Snakes haven’t bit me; lightening hasn’t struck me. God outgrew the robes and now arrays herself in tangibilities, acts of kindness, and the brilliance of the rising sun. She has adjusted things so that I can maintain a modicum of decorum and enough sanity to pass as ordinary.

“Ordinary?” God says, teasing. “No. Not you.”

“Hi, God.” I say. “Happy Mother’s Day.”

“Thanks,” God says. She looks happy. She’s carrying a wicker hamper, and though the world is resting on her shoulders as usual, for once, it is riding light and easy.

“What’s in the basket?” I ask, anticipating an invitation for a hike or a picnic. Afterall, it is Mother’s Day.

“Oh, the usual,” she says. “Sandwiches, carrots, water, dandelions, ants, umbrellas, music, cookies…and forceps.”

“Ah, c’mon God,” I say, probably looking a little pale.

“Better to be prepared,” God says. And basically, I agree.

“You didn’t need to bring the ants,” I say.

“You’re probably right,” God says. “But one never knows.”

Bathwater

Desmond Tutu arranged to have his body reduced to bone with water instead of fire. But then, where does the water go? In the darkest hour, this is what I ask over and over. “Where does the water go?” There’s no answer. I imagine God’s warm hands emerging from the dim mysteries of night to massage away my dread, but night runs its course faithful to its purpose and somehow, I rest.

God is the baby thrown out because the bathwater has grown so murky, but we hate admitting mistakes, don’t we?  Polluted, opaque waters create a dangerous urgency. Rabbits introduced in Australia with no natural predators, the wrongheaded trapping of coyotes and other wild beings, coffins surfacing in the flood; these are just a few of the frightening ways our intentions circle back, contaminated.

Light finally appears, brash and naked. I am drenched in the vivid orange of willows, awaiting an arrival that has already happened. I am dead to the night, dead to myself, alive to the day, and it is good.

The end and beginning, elephants, elevations, evolution, the vibrant midnight blue I created from discarded paint. All approach perfection. But even with perfection, there are problems. The eye of God I see seeing me blinks because there is dust in the morning air. The dust is of God’s own making, but I stirred the dark, dark blue and painted it on our most obvious wall. When I stare long enough, I can see all the way through.

There are many ways to be incontinent. I am proud of mine. The leakage of reason into the vast ocean of unknowing is often thought to be a toxic form of erosion, but it needn’t be. I am living proof that even landlocked nations can learn to swim.

“Come on in,” God yells from the place where all rain and grief begin. She’s floating shamelessly on her back, splashing her fat little hands, delighted. “The water’s fine.”

I laugh. There is nothing fine or safe about this new day or this water, but it is what we are made of.  It is what we bleed into and what might wash us clean. It is the amniotic fluid from whence we came. God swims to the shore and takes my hand. We stand ankle-deep and skip stones across the rippled surface. God’s feet are bioluminescent. Mine are clay.

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.