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.

Click Bait

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God came roaring up in his 4-wheel drive pick-up, skidded to a halt, slammed the door, and stomped up my newly-poured sidewalk. His hair was on fire. He scorched the lower branches of the chokecherry bushes before he flung open the front door. “Who d’ya think you are, you worthless pieceashit?” he shouted. “Your writing sucks. You can’t speak for me. I’m the Supreme Being. King. Ruler. God Almighty. I speak for My Self. You need to shut your damn trap.”

Something was deeply untrue. My throat tightened, but my disbelief saved me.

“Wrong turn,” I said.

“Like hell,” he yelled, coming for my throat.

I stood my ground, looked him in the eye, and said “Fake news.”

He screamed and writhed like the wicked witch, diluted to shadow.

“How’d you know? How’d you know?” He squealed a dramatic piggy squeal as he sank to the bottom of the inky nastiness at my feet.

I couldn’t explain how I knew any more than I could explain my aching stomach and pounding head. It hurt. Everything hurt. Lies and dark money. Hatred. Malignant neglect. Greed. Ignorance. Threats. Vicious attacks. Click bait. Click bait. Death bait. Hate bait. I named it. I stood with the wounded. I refused to strike back. That hurt too.

“Good work,” the real God whispered. I nodded in complete agreement. It was good work. Hard work. I could see that God had taken the brunt of the hit. She was still a little bent over.

“Why, oh why do you bother with us?” I asked, only half-sincere. “And where do you get the patience?”

“I can’t answer that, honey,” God said. “But you’ll know someday.” She was tired, but there was still a warm light in her eyes.

“Well, forgive me,” I said. “But I seriously doubt it.”

“Doubt’s good,” she said. “Compassion’s better.” Then she drifted to the porch, to my treasured collection of petrified wood. She chose one of my favorite pieces, ate it, and settled down among the beautiful fossils to rest.

“Nooooo,” I wailed. “Not that one. Not there.” But it was too late. She was gone.

Oh, I how I hate being human sometimes, swirling around in our ugly soup, hope against hope, kin against kin. We keep extracting, gorging, and making weapons. How are we going to fix this mess? Compassion hardly gets any clicks at all.

Not Fair

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My brother loaned me his rototiller and I haven’t returned it. He says he’ll come get it if he needs it. I say well, that’s not really fair. He says whoever said life was fair? I mutter something like well, at least I should try to make it more fair. He just smiles.

“Hey, God,” I yell, after my brother drives away. “Whoever said life was fair?”

“Not I,” says God. “I’m not in charge of that idea. In fact, it’s a childish notion I hope you’ll outgrow someday. Who gets more candy? Who sleeps on the top bunk? This is okay when you’re seven. Tiresome behavior for adults.”

It began to rain. It rained on the river and on the cracked, thirsty garden. It rained on the pavement and on a spring wedding somewhere. The wind picked up and blew so hard I gasped for breath. It blew down a tree, it blew waves in the water, it blew away the simplistic demands we make of our shrink-wrapped God. The rain came sideways and the real God shimmered, at ease in the liquid uncertainty we think of as life.

I started a fire. God shook like a dog and joined me. My fate in the hands of rain. My days in the arms of wind. This chills me to the bone. I rub my stiff hands and sip tea.

“Justice is different than fairness,” God says. “You know that eye for an eye thing?”

I nod, wary.

God continues, patient. “That’s the upward limit. No more than an eye for an eye. But less is better. In fact, I favor forgiveness and compassion. Your species is more likely to survive that way.”

“Duh,” I snap at God. “Justice. Mercy. Compassion. Humility. I get it.” I pause and calm myself. “But I don’t think it’s fair you aren’t helping us more.” I smile. God smiles. It’s good we have these little chats.

My twinkly-eyed friend with his infectious laugh will soon be dead from the cancer he’s carried for decades. I can eat a second or third salted caramel while I write this. When I turn on the news, likely I’ll see a child bloated with hunger, floating on a crowded raft. I won’t gag. Maybe I should. God, should I gag?

The rain pounds down and the river’s rising. No answer. No answer at all.

Sin

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So much depends on the right weed-eater and a proper attitude toward sin. The root structures of unwanted plants and unwanted behaviors are similarly complex.

God explained this to me as we dragged out the various weed-eating options to face the onslaught of summer. I was making an attempt to consider my failings this past week. I don’t like weeds, but I try to be patient. My friend–a permaculture fan–is determined to teach me about biodiversity and tolerance. God, also a permaculture fan, constantly urges me to considering the grand scheme of things.

“Did you want me to confess anything in particular?” I asked God, as we checked the oil in the Husqvarna.

“No, not really,” God answered. “Sin is separation from Good Things. Which happens to be one of my names. One of my favorites, actually. Good Things, I mean. Not Sin. Damn Good Things in fact. You can call me DGT for short.” God chuckled at this little joke and then said, “But seriously, you don’t have to confess. Sin carries its own price. Disconnection sucks. For both of us.”

I nodded. Life is definitely harder when I’m all disconnected, my ego bloated and unwieldy. When I’m my best self, I fill a tiny, unique space in the garden, and I’m happy. When I get greedy, I trample on vital species, poison the soil around me, gobble up nutrients not meant for me, become increasingly undisciplined, and frankly, ugly, common, and boring. And when I get frightened, I yank my roots in close, breaking the thin strands of connection to the earth, and topple over in the dry western wind.

“But I’ve heard that confession is good for the soul,” I said, wanting a bit of encouragement.

“Oh, it is,” God said. “It is indeed. But what’s even better is compost.”

I sat on my favorite boulder, watching the sun go down. For once, God pitched in and did a fair amount of work. My feet and hands were still as I willed myself into the void, waiting for night to descend. I was confident I knew the way.

Saturday Morning, Me and God

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There was massive, unavoidable death on the horizon this morning. It’s there every morning, but I usually look away and eat toast with the radio on—the familiar lulling me into another manageable day. But God had gotten up quite a bit earlier, pulled the shades on all the other windows, and hid my coffee. I ran for the beer. God blocked the way. I feigned a coughing fit. God slapped me on the back and waited. I plugged my ears and said “Na, na, na, na, na…” but God sang along. So I unstopped my ears, opened my eyes, settled my soul, and looked the only direction I could see.

“Is this really how it ends?” I said to God. “So much suffering. So much violence. So much hate?”

“I don’t know,” God answered. “It might end more peacefully. I’m as curious as you.”

“I’m not curious,” I said. “I’m sad and terrified.”

“I know,” God said. “Me too. But aren’t you a little bit curious?”

I thought about it. Am I curious about which disaster ends life as we’ve known it on planet earth? Maybe a little. Because I’m old anyway. Will it be global warming or cooling, caused by us-who-shall-not-be-named? Forced population increase because no birth control or abortions, or even educational opportunities are available to the women? Will it be war, humans determined to kill each other for the sake of….ummm….ideologies? Money? Their idea of God? Will it be the rich, with their weapons amassed, or the poor, with their fists hardened in hunger and despair?

I snapped my attention back to my demanding guest. “God. I’ve mentioned this before, but how can you let people judge, abandon, hurt and kill each other, claiming it’s your will?”

God’s head sagged. “Yeah, I wonder that myself. But I decided on this free will frontal lobe experiment with you all. I’ve given you as many hints and examples as I dare, modeled options that would provide sustainable ways to live, and graceful ways to die. I’ve put nature in motion–wondrous, awesome, stunning works of art that should inspire. Do you have any idea what’s gone wrong?”

“Well, God,” I said. “Not really. I mean, I try, but I’m one of them. Remember? Just as susceptible to deception, greed and hatred as the next human.”

God nodded. “I know.”

We sat down and drank the coffee together in silence. God likes it black and strong. I prefer a fair amount of half-and-half.

 

Stick in the Mud

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Again, this morning, the rain fell at all the wrong times and fist-sized snowflakes taunted spring’s attempt to arrive. But spring will win in the end. Until summer grabs hold and starts burning down the days, rivers rising and falling, hopes rising and falling, life and death in the usual tangle of grand schemes and undergrowth. Today, that’s as far as I’m going to go. Yes, likely, there will be autumn on the heels of summer. Likely, another vicious white winter will come.

Perhaps I’ll still be eating dark chocolate caramels. Parking my old van in the new garage. Burning firewood I’ve carefully stack and tarped. Perhaps not. I don’t ask anymore. I wait. God sends me junk mail and drives by in a ridiculous convertible, top down, hair flying out behind. I just wave. I don’t even open the mail. It opens me. I close back up as fast as I can, but not before I see myself, hoping I’ve won the sweepstakes, ignoring the pleas for donations, refusing to believe the sad, sad stories or the silly promises, hating the hype and the hubris of my fellow beings, and yes, of myself.

Sometimes, I consider hitching a ride in that convertible. No doubt, it’d be the ride of my life. Anytime I dismantle my disbelief, God seeps in, croaking like a frog, singing like a canary, dancing like a fool, driving like a maniac. But so far, I’m keeping my thumbs tucked in, head down, feet planted firmly in the mud. She’s one crazy dude, and I’m precariously human. She dives off the deep end, flailing and free.

God wedges herself into my head. “Nice little set of paragraphs,” she says. I roll my eyes. She continues. “And I get the mud. It’s not a bad thing to dig in and stay safe. In fact, I like mud.”

I feel a little defeated. Confused. It isn’t comforting that God likes mud. And she doesn’t leave it at that. “I like speed, and sky, and green. I like hot pink. I like jazz and country-western. Gays and straights, blacks and browns.” She pauses for a microsecond, then adds, “And I love the deep end.”

She sees my reaction. Smiles. “I think you’ve forgotten a key piece of the picture, sweetie.” I nod, hoping for something sane and solid.  Foolish me. God plugs her nose and leaps into an imaginary pool. “I AM the deep end,” she shouts. Air ripples like water as she swims gracefully away.

 

Fear

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Across an expanse of greening alfalfa, a mated pair of Sandhill Cranes use legs, thin as sticks, to pick their way along–resigned, ungainly, slow. They scold the world, aware that few are listening. Aware of the coming storm. Morning is a burden, the sky unattainable, heavily gray. Their staccato calls, made sonorous by windpipes coiled deep in their bodies, drift across the land and dissipate like smoke.

I am startled by rain, arriving sudden and cold. The hills disappear in the downpour and the Gray God of Unknowing washes away the dusty assumptions we use to comfort our selfish selves. Few things are fully true. We are made of approximations. Sometimes, we feed the children; sometimes, we feed the brutal urges coming up from the underbelly of fear. I matter as much as the lilacs, the lilies, the lizards. I am capable of fire.

“Yes,” God says in a sleepy voice from the corner. “You’ve been capable of fire for a long time now.” I pull my gaze from the pouring rain and nod. God looks rumpled. Sweet and a little disoriented. She stretches like a cat. “Good day for napping, isn’t it?” I nod again. It looks like she might go back to sleep. That’s for the best, I think, so I hold very still. I guess God finds this funny. Laughter fills the room, the house, breaks the windows, spills out and floods the valley. Laughter shakes the clouds, astonishes the cranes, brightens the hills, fills the river. Only God can laugh like this. I don’t even try to join in. In fact, I’m a little bit afraid.

Finally, it winds down. God wipes her nose and curls back up in her cozy blanket. “There is wisdom in fear,” she says, before closing those smoldering eyes. “But choose your fears wisely. They’re as powerful as your loves.

The Nondominant Hand of God

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Peeling enough old carrots to make carrot soup involves a lot of peeling. As I made my way through the pile, my arm got tired and my fingers ached, so I switched and tried peeling with my left hand. Since I’m right-handed, this required an increased level of mindfulness, which I exerted for the few seconds it takes for my mind to wander off and my hands to surreptitiously switch back to their comfort zone. I caught them doing this three times.

Why do most humans even have a dominant side? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to be equally coordinated on both sides? Dualism bothers me at any level—dominant/nondominant, strong/weak, pretty/ugly…but the shallow assertions of good/bad bother me the most. Context and consciousness exert enormous influence on what is considered good or bad. Maybe this is why my buddy, God, said “judge not, lest ye be judged.” Well. God may or may not have said that exactly, but it’s a good thing to consider. And God went on to imply that we’d be judged by the same standards we use on others. I have a bit of work to do in this area. I cut myself a lot of slack that I don’t necessarily cut others.

For the fourth time, I switch to my nondominant hand. It clumsily scrapes the peel off the carrot, and I try a new tack. “Thanks, Left Hand. Not so easy for you, huh? Hang in there. You might not peel as fast, but you’re important. Look at the relief you’re providing Righty.” I feel a wave of affection for this left hand of mine. My hands don’t try to switch back. Lefty peels valiantly. I admire the tenacity, the humility. My left hand doesn’t aspire to much. It tags along.

Is it possible that God has a nondominant hand? And if so, could God’s nondominant hand be her favorite? The one she used to mold the rolling hills? The one that dispenses gentleness? The one that reminds her of the relativity and circularity she’s set in motion–the stuff we refer to as creation?

These orange carrots. These aged and battered hands. This moment. This body. Breathe in. Breathe out. The oneness and completeness we keep taking apart to examine and label–the fragments and shards that have no home. If time were real, I’d ask God how much longer we’d be living like this. Then I would forgive my enemies. My heart would expand and crack open, and this would be the beginning and the end.

 

In Praise of Sky

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I sing the praises of blue, blue sky, diving magpies, hawks, and ravens. Perfectly still air, and a calm soul. I shout thanks for the excellent sleep and the waking, consciousness and sustenance, and the rusty metal relics I’ve made into toys and works of art. Pumpkin pie and beer for breakfast. Lotion for my itchy legs. A plan that will help me sequence as I meander. A charger for my phone. I am among the blessed. My good fortune extends so far beyond what I deserve that the comparison is spurious. What I deserve and what I have are unrelated. To prove otherwise would involve such massive statistical analyses, only God could give it a go.

My mind wanders. Imagine God with 7 billion independent undeserving variables lining up with their blessings and curses, their riches and hunger, their longings and fears. What connects to what? What would the dependent variables be? Clean air? Laughter? Breast milk? Weapons? Money? Love? A full belly? A fantastic sexual partner? Healthcare?

Correlation is NOT causation. This is the single spiritual truth I learned in Advanced Statistics. But, my or my, aren’t we tempted to draw the easy conclusions? Isn’t it hard to let go of those judgements about who deserves what? Some graceless days, I deserve nothing. Some malevolent days, I’d willingly get rid of half the world’s population, convinced I’d be doing the Universe a favor.

Tune in here, God. Don’t you realize how maddening it is to be us? Well-fed, fulfilled human beings who’ve invented politics, the nightly news and the Internet? I didn’t ask to be born who I am, where I am. Why am I not a dead Syrian child? Why am I not a billionaire? God, you’re inconsistent and nearly inscrutable. What am I? What am I supposed to do?

“Enough,” God said. “You’re enough. You’re a stitch in the quilt I’ve been working on, a glimmer of light through water, you add to the harmonics, and help with the boredom I face occasionally. I set you free before you knew what that meant, and I’ve been trying to teach you ever since. Most humans are frightfully slow learners, but luckily, I invented education, and if you’re willing, I’ll keep teaching you.”

“Ok,” I said meekly.

“Good to hear,” God said. “You can back off the statistics. I was enjoying your revelry before you drifted. Do what’s in your heart to do. Let your joy make you brave, compassion make you strong. That’s how I do it, and remember, we’re a lot alike.”

“Yeah. I hate when you point that out,” I said, loosening up a little.

God laughed and blew me flirtatious kisses, like fireworks on the horizon. I blew some back and began again to praise the blue, blue sky. But frankly, it didn’t seem like enough. I crossed my arms, ill at ease with my comparative wealth. God laughed again. “Keep trying,” God whispered. “Keep trying.”