Inviting Abuse

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God and I were philosophizing as we watched the snow pile up. I was wound up—as in downright nasty. “The thing about power is that it brings out the worst in everyone. Like when people weaker than I am mess up and instead of owning up and apologizing, they lash out, make excuses, lie, threaten, and offend. What is wrong with them? Don’t they know they are squishable little bugs?” God raised an eyebrow, but it didn’t phase me. I ranted on. “It’s like they’re baiting me, inviting abuse.”

God frowned and held up her hand. “Whoa there cowgirl, let’s slow down a minute. Of course it’s an invitation. But not for abuse. It’s a screamingly clear invitation for compassion. You hold the cards. I think you know that.”

I glared. The way I saw it, if anyone should be screaming, it should be me. “Yeah, fine, compassion,” I snarled. “But what about me? What about justice? It isn’t fair. People act as if I’m to blame for their bad decisions and bad luck. At least they could say they’re sorry. A lot of people deserve a good whack, they need to be served papers, they need a call from my attorney.”

“You don’t have an attorney,” God said patiently.

“Well, I could damn well get one,” I snapped.

“So could I,” God said.

Unthinkable implications flood the room. God with an attorney. I grabbed the fragments of power I thought were mine, wove them into a raft, and tried to row away. “I’m worthless,” I shouted. “Leave me alone.” I broke into a sweat as I pulled on the oars.

“Here, let me help,” God said, as she settled herself beside me on the leaky vessel. We rowed shoulder to shoulder, gliding over all the angst and blame in the world. I began to let down my guard, but then I realized that the escape route I’d chosen was circular. I panicked and hyperventilated. “We’ve gone in circles,” I yelled, humiliated and filled with dread.

God smiled. “Honey, all escape routes are circular. That’s how I laid things out. Check Google Earth sometime.” She kept rowing, maddeningly cheerful. So, I just gave up. We spent the day exploring the concentric wonderments of creation, the gravitational guidance of long-suffering servants, critical masses of insects and starlings, visions and dreams. By evening, I was completely spent. I laid my head in God’s lap and reached for her hand.

“What are you so afraid of?” God asked as she stroked my hair. I thought as hard as I could, given my exhaustion, the rocking motion of the settled sea, and the distracting brilliance of her deep black eyes. “I don’t know for sure,” I mumbled.

The last thing I heard was the gravely laughter of God playing a game of poker with a rowdy crowd of whiners. She had a royal flush. Her winnings covered a multitude of sins, imagined or otherwise. God pulled the soft flannel blanket of mortality up to my chin, and I drifted off to sleep in the orbit of a forgiving moon.

 

Not a Snowball’s Chance

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This week I heard a priest declare we should look to the birdness of birds and the treeness of trees to discern natural law and thus discern what it might mean to be human, in the humanness sense of human. Strangely, I’ve heard this reasoning used to claim that no one should be gay, but in my view, we should look to the gayness of gay people to better understand this amazing expression of God’s creativity and love of diversity. I realize there may be a religion or two that disagree with me, but the thing is, God has been spoken for and spoken of since there were words. God has been interpreted, proclaimed, defamed, elevated, and killed by various thinkers, writers, and con artists the world over. Unthinkable cruelty is done in the name of God, and astonishing kindness happens without God mentioned in the least. Weird claims are made, political agendas promoted. From a global viewpoint, God is not all that coherent.

“I try to be,” God protested, as this observation formed in my mind.

I’d had my half-beer and my mood was steady and contemplative. “You don’t try that hard,” I said. “That’s why I like you so much. You’re bewildering, illogical, eccentric, peculiar, inexplicable, perplexing, and absurd. You’re preposterous, disconcerting, untamable, unstoppable, and we can only see an infinitesimal fraction of you at any given time. I like that in the Ultimate Authority of the Universe. If you were a lesser being, it might be more aggravating.”

God looked pleased. “Okay, I guess you’re right,” God said. “But I do have a certain consistency.” God looked straight at me. This is an aspect of God I like less well: personal accountability. I am painfully aware that honesty and compassion are behaviors available to all, and equally aware that fancy words and complex philosophies are used to twist these simple truths into flimsy excuses for crusaders of all stripes who maim, torture, extract, extort, cheat, lie, and murder in the name of God.

“God,” I said. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?” God asked, all innocent and mild. My defensive anger flared.

“Step outside,” I said.

God followed me out the back door. I made a snowball and threw it hard. God caught it as if I were just playing around. She rolled it in the blue of sky and ash from our wood stove, waved a turkey feather over it and waited. It took on the hues of our wounded earth and shimmered with a hopeful light. I was sure God was going to throw it back, but I was wrong.

God kept the snowball cradled in her hand, offered me a supportive elbow, and we walked through the deep snow to the river. I forgot my indignation and shame. The splendor of creation shrank my sense of failure and futility. Crusty ice gave the water a sharp winter melody, and we sang along for a while, God and me, arm in arm. As the sun sank, God slipped under the surface and floated away. I waved and wandered home.

There, I found the snowball earth, soft and mushy in my pocket. I was tempted to put it in the freezer and keep it forever, but I knew that would never work. Instead, I put it in my favorite cup and sat by the fire as night descended and the glowing snowball melted into holy water. With considerable trepidation, I knew I would drink it before I went to sleep.

 

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.”

Red Box

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God and I are meandering down the alley. I’m on foot. God’s doing a high-wire act to make me laugh. There are crows, evidence of squirrels, and things discarded littering our way. Among the riffraff I find the redeemable. I offer thanks for the empty gift box flashing fancy red from a garbage can, and driftwood, smooth as skin, and seven or eight green apples, all bruised from the fall. I commune with the broken, hoping to catch a direct glimpse of my constant, often invisible, sometimes putrid companion who hides among the worst of it. The ways of God aren’t always pretty, safe, or easy. But I’ve learned to never, ever sanitize God. It causes a crippling loss of the sensations that make us human.

Today, it appears God wants to be silly, but shoes hanging by their laces from electrical lines don’t do much for me. Everything seems stupid. “Hey Goofball,” I venture. “Could you stop clowning around? I don’t want to laugh right now.” Honesty usually works well with the Holy Goofball. She can make her hide thicker than a crocodile’s. But this time, her skin is thin and she’s reactive.

“What makes you think this is for you?” she asks, voice sharp and petulant. “It isn’t always about you.” I look around. Lilac bushes are wilting. Alley weeds transgress, ugly and aggressive. Dust and smoke swirl. And then I notice that a muttering woman with a Safeway shopping cart has turned toward us. Why’d she turn? It isn’t even a paved alley. But here she comes. Snarling. Incoherent. A small, vicious world pulled tight around her—she’s walled herself off from gentleness, reason, or even meaningful contact. She’s a one-winged bird, flapping low. The gravel impedes her progress, but even so, she’s steadily getting closer.

Unhinged people frighten me.

Of course, I know, you know, God is permanently, proudly, unhinged. An ever-present danger to my complacency. Ultimately, it’s always God pushing the shopping cart, arriving as requested. I often wonder why I ask. But this is irrelevant. The street lady comes for us all, requested or not.

She waits, scowling, while I meekly climb in. There’s room for my red box, the driftwood, and a few of the apples. I am adding to her burden, but I see no other option. This unflinching, castoff God shows me the way, holding a fractured mirror.

My real home is a borrowed wire cage, my shelter permeable, mostly imagined. I am wilting lilacs, aggressive weeds, swirling smoke and fine gray dust. I am the favored child of an unhinged God, waiting to see what will happen next.

Awakenings

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Every morning I wake up before I want to, and the pleading begins. First, I plead with my mind to quit racing, bladder to back off, and feet to stop tingling. I beg the other distractions to have mercy and cease the agitation so I can go back to sleep. Usually, this does not work, so I turn my focus outward and fervently repeat the word please, but I’m not pleading with my mind or body anymore. I am pleading with the Other—the Out-there, the Collective, the Wonderment, the Real. I call her God. You don’t have to. Neither of us minds much about names.

Usually, I don’t feel pathetic, nor particularly hopeful. I don’t feel desperate (very often), nor do I feel humble. Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be anyone there, and the pleading is a thin tributary flowing into the great river of human longing. Other times, God wakes with me, sits on the edge of the bed, takes in the pleading, and we commiserate.

And once in a while, she is awake before me. This morning, there she was, in the darkest corner, staring across the room, breathing all the available air. I woke in her gaze, fighting to get enough oxygen to begin the day. She emanated a largeness, an earthy, expansive decomposition.

“Could you shrink a little?” I asked. “You’re suffocating me. And you need a bath or something.”

God blushed and pulled some of herself back in. “I guess I overshot a little,” she said. “I got distracted waiting for you to wake up.” She didn’t say it in a mean way, but I rolled over and turned my face to the wall in shame.

Here was God, sitting around, getting bigger, sweaty, and out of breath waiting for me to wake up. I’ve been trying to wake up my whole life. There are so damn many temptations, such a draw to falsehoods. There are mental dead-ends, alleys filled with trash, and a certain alluring homelessness that both invites and frightens me.

“God,” I mumbled from under the covers., still facing away. But I stopped. Words are magic, but they are secondary to the primal wish for connection and comprehension. They’re slippery and can be used for nefarious purposes. I didn’t want to hide or obfuscate or excuse myself. I just wanted…I just wanted…I rolled back over to face God.

“Please,” I said. “Please.” Like most mornings, it was all I had. What I was longing for wasn’t clear. Who I am wasn’t clear. What might turn the tide wasn’t clear. The way back wasn’t clear, and the way forward wasn’t either. God was painfully present. Listening. I felt a rising sense of panic.

God opened her mouth. Oh no, I thought. Oh no. Here it comes. What was I thinking? I’m not ready. I’m stupid. I won’t understand whatever she says. I’m old. I’m too weak to do whatever she is going to say. I’m selfish. I didn’t dare plug my ears, but I considered it. The pause may have been brief, or may have lasted centuries. It was long enough for our eyes to lock.

“If you add thank you,” God said gently, “you’ll feel a little better.” Then she settled in beside me, releasing more air than I could ever breathe. I hid under her downy wings and slept the sleep of the holy. The innocent. The dead. This is the only place it is safe to be awake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feeding birds

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“Hey, God,” I said. “Should I feed the birds?”

“Say what?” God said, puzzled.

“Should I feed the birds? I mean like buy bird seed, put it in a feeder, fill it up, and feed them?”

“That is entirely up to you,” God said, gleaming bright yellow from the feathers of a goldfinch, scarlet from the blackbird wings. I remembered God’s hysterical laughter at the mating dance of the sandhill crane earlier this spring. Why would she not endorse the idea of bird-feeders? She obviously gets a kick out of birds.

“But should I?” I asked again. “I can afford bird feed. I could feed them and give them a place to splash around, too.”

“You sure could,” God said. “I’ve been doing it for eons. They like thistle seed. And they’re not that picky about where they splash around. They’re like little kids; they love puddles.”

“I don’t like thorns,” I said, frowning. “And I don’t like puddles. Mosquito breeding grounds.”

“Yes,” God said. “You aren’t a bird. Birds see things differently. You’re not a child anymore, either.”

“Sheesh,” I said. “I know that. Why do you have to point out the obvious instead of answering me directly?” This was becoming one of those exasperating conversations where the tables were soon to turn. I could feel it in my bones.

Sure enough, God said, “Excellent question. Why do I have to point out the obvious over and over? Why do I have to bend over backwards, forwards, sideways, up, down, and under? Why do I have to repeat myself ad infinitum? Why do you choose angst over joy? Why do you fear your mortality? Why do you hide in your greed? Why don’t you sing or dance or play more often?”

“I knew you’d do this to me. I ask a simple question, and you turn into a bird, and then get all defensive and blame me for not…”

“Not what?” God said, putting a big, oil-stained hand on my shoulder. The fingernails were atrocious. It was workaday God. “Not what?” he repeated.

I was stymied. I felt blamed and guilty but I couldn’t put my finger on why.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’m sad, God. And angry. It’s making me dull-witted.”

God laughed. “Basically, just remember this: It’s all chicken feed and beautiful brown eggs. Get out there and love the most obnoxious people you can find. Grab my hand and listen to their hatefulness with interest and compassion. Smile beatifically.”

It was my turn to say, “Say what?”

And we left it at that. I had lists to make. Weeds to pull. A self to feel sorry for, and a country and world to feel sickened by. And God? Who knows? Probably busy forgiving someone. That’s my best guess.

An Email to God

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Yesterday, I got this email:

Dear Honest God,

I’m not sure how to reach you, so I’m sending this through your friend Rita.

I woke up at 3-something in the morning talking to you. Which is pretty odd since I don’t believe in you, and besides, you are Rita’s, not mine. I was talking with you about being a 72 year old woman – closer to my death than to my birth, although perhaps I am also reborn every day. You, of course, are ageless, so maybe you can’t relate. But if that’s true, what does “older than god” mean?

I have this fear which surfaces occasionally – especially at 3-am-ish, of getting old, losing my memory and my energy / strength. Losing my relevance in the world. Not that I was ever any big deal. My kids with their work and their marriages, kids and jobs and friends – well, I’m not that important any more. Side lined a bit.

My Buddhist brain chants placidly ” We are of a nature to grown old.. We are of a nature to die…” but another louder, more demanding part of my brain (at that hour) is saying “nononono” The image is of being on a big river, some big rocks ahead and then a big waterfall. And I can hear the roar of the falls….

I waited a bit, but then decided I was going to have to step in, so I wrote back:

 Dear Nancy,

So far, God has refused to email me. She’s an awful co-author—whimsical, contradictory, self-important, demanding, and sometimes frightening. She shows up on her own schedule, pesters me at all the wrong times, and provides few answers. But on the positive side, she doesn’t seem to care if anyone believes in her. She’s not needy in that way. And though humans judge “on her behalf”, I haven’t found a judgmental bone in her ephemeral body. Just infinite compassion for the human condition—a condition which includes an evolutionary leap into consciousness that we have trouble handling—thus that 3:00 AM torment of mortality, meaninglessness, and impending death.

I find comfort in the fact that I didn’t choose to be born. Likely, leaving the womb was terrifying, cataclysmic–something to resist. But I was born. From what I can gather, life’s a gift—mine to squander, live selfishly, cruelly, and in fear, or I can live  compassionately, generously, joyously…I can prolong it, or end it, or see what happens next. I can welcome the day or hide from it. And since I try to be as honest as God, I admit I do, or consider doing, all of the above. All of the above.

I used to think I wasn’t afraid to die, but I am. I would welcome eternal youth or at least less arthritis. But though we have choices, they are limited. I try to be at peace with aspects of being alive that I cannot fix or change—even if they totally suck. But one of my torments is this: could I fix more? Am I doing enough? This is where God comes in handy. I remind her I am NOT her, and therefore, it is her job to show me what to do—point me to a calling or two. Or not. I keep my ears tuned to loving frequencies and my eyes as open as I can.

Yes. Big bruising boulders. A roaring waterfalls. Our lives, a river. We drift along, occupying increasingly battered bodies and steadily declining minds. Sometimes, I like to maneuver to the shallow spots and dance. Or float on my back, find the sky, and dream. The raspberry harvest looks to be abundant this year.

Hope this helps.

Love,

Rita