The Meek

“Here’s the question,” I said to God. “Why would the meek even want to inherit the earth? After the unmeek are finished pillaging, what’ll be left anyway?”

Three distinct snow devils twirled by, and then a vicious wind blew the remnants of the last storm across the garden, blurring my view. The weather patterns have begun to express earth’s outrage at its tormentors. The meek stand at the far end of the long arc of justice and there’s no pot of gold awaiting. Only diminishment and misery.

“Interesting question,” God said. “Could I get a couple of scrambled eggs? The brown, free-range ones, if you please.”

“Why?” I asked. “What’s the point? You’re not hungry.”

God shrugged and made his own eggs.

And here’s another interesting question,” I said with some irritation. “Why is nature so exquisite? Elephants. Apple trees. Caterpillars. Orchids. Translucent baby mice, huddled in their circle of pink, bones so tiny they could be eyelashes. Wild skies. Bengal tigers. Wheat fields before harvest. Fire. Ice.” I paused, caught up in the complexity and splendor of it all. Then added, “and why are humans so destructive?”

God ate his eggs, nodding and smacking his lips. “These eggs were fertilized,” he said. “Circle of life and all that. Tasty. But this toast is questionable. I think your flour has gone bad, and I think I’d like some ice cream.”

I sighed. The wind had died down. The air was clean, my vision unimpeded, my flour rancid, my questions mostly unanswered, and for some inexplicable reason, my soul was at peace. A cold snap was rolling in, but we had enough wood. I vowed to have more faith next time and buy less flour. But I bake a lot of bread.

“Survival is a complicated, temporary equation, isn’t it?” I asked God as he zipped his down coat, wrapped his neck with a wool scarf, and pulled his rabbit fur hat down tight. I didn’t expect him to answer, but he did.

“Yes and no,” he said. “On one side are the essentials: Compassion. Humility. Sacrifice. On the other, well, you figure that out.” He took a long lick of what appeared to be licorice ice cream and added, “It may involve delight.” Then he slipped out the door to the west where joyous and majestic mountains rose to greet him. There were snowshoes strapped to his back.

The Harder Truths

“God,” I lamented. “It’s seriously cold and I’m sad.”  My old friend had died in the night, brave and private in his decline. I rubbed my hands together, trying to warm them. God watched me, face impassive. I continued. “You know I hate being cold.” I was feeling sorry for myself. Too many losses. Too much grief. Deep freeze cold makes me insecure, achy, and painfully aware of mortality.

God didn’t seem inclined to do anything useful, so I got a blanket. She watched as I draped it over my chest and wrapped my feet. Then she said, “Most of you secretly want your mommies when you’re cold, hungry, frightened, or sad, don’t you?”

This seemed less than kind. I glared. Said nothing. God went on. “But not your real mommy. You want an imaginary celestial being who understands how hard things are. Someone to fawn over you, feed you, assure you of your incredible worth, make false promises, and tuck you in, safe and sound, every night.”

I wasn’t enjoying these revelations, and the blanket wasn’t helping much. I shivered and looked away. God continued. “Oh, I know you sometimes arrange to be tucked in by surrogates, but even if they give you warm milk, dim the lights, or stay and snuggle, they aren’t what you long for. They can’t save you from yourself.”

Why on earth was God saying such things? I’m not all that demanding. I don’t think I long to be taken care of—at least not all the time. Is a blanket too much to ask? Overall, I’m relatively independent, nearly a prepper, minus the guns. I have two outhouses, a pantry, solar panels, wood stove, tons of rice, and an attitude.

God sat big in the middle of my brain. I sat uneasy in the presence of this God, apparently determined to say things I didn’t want to hear.

“Being grown-up means you put yourself to bed at night.” God said, as if ending a sermon or an inspirational talk.

I was not inspired. “No,” I wailed. “You’re wrong. You’re there. I know you are. And there are others. The ancestors. The nymphs and gnomes, the weak and strong. My beloved. My children and the children in such despair. Such need. They all go to bed with me. And we sleep. And we wake up. And we hope. And we believe as best we can.” I made these shaky declarations between ragged breaths, my hands fisted, ready to slug it out.

God took the fists and blew warm breath on them as they unclenched. I looked up and saw that God was crying, too. We flung our arms around each other and let the tears drip into the vast and rising darkness where the souls of the dearly departed wait to tuck us in with a strange and certain warmth.

Senses

Smell is our oldest sense. Collectively, humans can detect billions of different odors. This has played a central role in our evolution, leading to such literary declarations as Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. The sense of smell has made headlines recently because a microscopic organism has been infecting human brains, disabling the senses of smell and taste: a virus not to be trifled with. But then, evil is rarely to be trifled with, right God?

No answer. The silence isn’t holy. But some days, I just keep talking.

And about this notion of evil, God. Who’s evil? What is it? As you know, I don’t like dust settling on things again and again or ashes as a final destination. I like fresh sheets, crisp salad, and good news. Call me shallow, but that’s the way it is, God. I would prefer to be comfortable, adored, young, well-fed, and smart. And whatever deprives me of what I want, well, let’s call that evil, shall we?

My one-way chat takes a nasty turn as the sun intensifies through the window and I see myself reflected on my computer screen in all my dismal glory. “No wonder God is busy elsewhere,” I say to my image in a mean voice. “You’re all the things you dread.” I consider the procedures and surgeries available to make me seem younger, more adorable, smarter. This breaks my fall. My distended ego deflates, and I give myself a smile that naturally lifts the wrinkles.

See, God? Here I am, smiling. All done judging. C’mon by.

I sit. I force myself to say prayers of lovingkindness for the twisted senator, the mouth-breathing fools on the airplanes, lazy neighbors, unkind people, even those who torture, deprive, and dehumanize. I give thanks for my senses, even though I can smell the blood of the disgusting humans who are destroying the planet. Oh, I wish I were the giant.

This last thought finally rouses The Presence. Holy Words, like sleek black animals, invade my brain. “You can’t eat your way to heaven,” they say in a low growl. “You can’t smell your way to salvation. You can’t see the face of God, and you can’t force your way in.” The Words collect around The Presence, and The Presence turns to me, taking the shape of a very old friend.

“The thing that shines in the broken moment, the shelter of translucent skin, these are lessons. Very little of who you are or what you do is to your credit or entirely your fault. Regardless, you will never be the giant. For this, be grateful. Go listen to holiday music. Inhale cinnamon and vanilla.”

“But that seems so…” I pause.

“Shallow?” asks my Very Old Friend. “Simple?”

“Yeah,” I nod. “It’s like giving up. Surrendering.”

“Yes,” my Very Old Friend says. “Much harder than it seems. But you can do it.  I’ll help.”

You Can’t Make Me

God and I are listening to Bonnie Raitt on Youtube. “I can’t make you love me if you don’t,” she croons, her voice resigned, gentle. The lyrics were inspired by an article about a man who’d shot up his girlfriend’s car. During sentencing, the judge asked the offender if he’d learned anything. He replied, “Yes, I did, Your Honor. You can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.”

“Well, that’s true,” God says. “But don’t extrapolate. She’s singing about eros–an attraction that’s sensuous, artistic, and spontaneous.” God gave me a chummy wink. “It may not have been that wise, but I put eros slightly out of your direct control. And I’ll admit, I get a kick out of watching eros make fools of you all occasionally.”

My mind drifts to some of my youthful escapades that may or may not have been fueled by eros. I keep silent. God laughs.

“I hid it in the genes; biology and all that,” God says, but quickly adds, “I also gave you a modicum of willpower and common sense. You can channel eros in some very nice ways.” God smiles. “It’s a source of energy.”

“Yeah,” I say. My mind drifts to the notion of loving my enemies; definitely not a source of energy.

“Ah,” God says. “Let me clear that up for you. It’s a problem with language. I never command eros. It’s there or it isn’t. My first–and actually only–commandment is this: Have compassion. Choose self-sacrifice. Act for the common good. I don’t just hope you love each other in this sense of love. It’s a full-on mandate.” God pushes back in the recliner, watching me squirm.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she says. And I say, “You already know what I’m thinking, But fine, I’ll say it. I’m thinking about mandates. I don’t like seatbelts. They make me itch and feel claustrophobic. There are mandates I hate.”

“Yup,” God says. “I know that.”

“But on the other hand, I detest second-hand smoke, and drunk drivers terrify me.”

“I know that, too.”

The song continues. “Morning will come, and I’ll do what’s right. Just give me ‘til then to give up this fight.”  The longing in her voice, the beautiful, ultimately loving surrender always chokes me up. Such a heart-wrenching choice.

“Now, about those seatbelts,” God says. “You realize that in a crash, your untethered body becomes a bludgeon, right? It’s a mandate for the common good, not your comfort.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I say. “That’s why I wear the damn things.”

But sometimes, I finish my half-beer in the car when I’m not driving. I haven’t shot up any vehicles, but I admit I still have some work to do.

“Oh, most of you have quite a bit of work to do,” God says. “And not to rush you, but like the song says, morning will come.”

Sphincters and Other Lesser Parts of the World

In the process of letting go (a euphemism for aging) I’ve grown more conversant with my inner workings. Organs, nerves, limbs, skin, circulatory systems, hairline–we’ve all befriended each other. For instance, on a recent road trip miles from anywhere, my bladder urged me to pull over. I squatted (a humble pose if there ever was one) and waved cheerfully at the driver of the pick-up that happened by. She waved back. A warm calm spread throughout my body as my bladder and I drove on home.

Some of us think of creation as parts of The Body. Others are more exclusive about who’s in and who’s out; what’s to be honored, who’s to be enslaved. These are ego-based pretendings, wrong-headed derivations. In the Oneness, every molecule has a voice. For instance, when stubbed, the oft-overlooked third toe suddenly takes center stage.

This is the kind of pondering that almost always guarantees a visit from God. Sure enough. She’s arrived on the west wind with a flood-inducing chinook on her tail.

“Why, hello there, God,” I say. “What a nice surprise. C’mon in.” My automatic hospitality reminds me of a poem my grandmother had on her kitchen wall:

            Guest, you are welcome here. Be at your ease.

            Get up when you’re ready. Go to bed when you please.

            We’re happy to share with you, such as we’ve got,

            The leaks in the roof and the soup in the pot.

            You don’t have to thank us or laugh at our jokes.

            Sit deep and come often. You’re one of the folks.

I memorized the rhyme, but I didn’t know what it meant to sit deep, and I didn’t like people partaking of my grandmother’s kindness. I wanted her all to myself. Now, I want God all to myself. I want singular adoration, endless comfort, and permission to be at my ease forever without the hassles of caring for others.

“Sorry,” God says. “Doesn’t work that way.” We gaze at the fire. She strokes her chin. “If you had a choice, which part of The Body would you be?”

I chew my thumb and think. Brain, eyes, ears all come to mind, but they’re too obvious. “Bladder,” I say. “I’d be the mop bucket.”

God laughs. “You know you’d have to cooperate with the sphincter, right?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ve known that for a very long time.” I raise my right hand. “I do hereby solemnly swear to love and honor the sphincters of the world. My own and others.”

I expect God to chuckle, but instead, I realize we are sitting deep; God and me. And I see that nothing functions without cooperation and mutual respect, internally or out there in the nasty, brutal, fractured Oneness we live within. I know I’m not alone, but sometimes I wish I were.

Holiday Lights

Recently, my friend brushed so close to death that her skin became luminescent, and the fingers on her left hand grew longer and more graceful. I noticed this when she lifted that hand to show me how she’d surrendered. I suspect she was either bidding the others in the room farewell or she was offering her hand and the rest of herself to the Larger. She doesn’t know. But at that moment, a Boundless Tangibility of Peace overcame the reluctance in her lungs, and she lived. It was that close. I like looking at her. She’s always had an easy laugh and a generous ear, but now she glows.

Three years ago, I decorated random pieces of yard art with solar-powered holiday lights, and they’ve flickered ever since, faithfully announcing the arrival of a thousand nightfalls. Of course, I know that eventually the lights will go out and my friend will stop glowing, but the pressing question is this: What are we supposed to do in the meantime? How should we greet each sunrise when we find ourselves alive? How do we handle the twinkling blue as daylight fades? My friend isn’t sure. Neither am I. We think it has something to do with acceptance. Authenticity. Doing our best.

But who knows? My Co-author does, but it’s tough to get a straight answer.

“Now honey-pie, y’know that ain’t true.” God has shown up. He protests in an awful imitation of a Southern drawl. “Y’all make this a bigger puzzle than it needs to be. I’ve been damn straight on this since forever. Love, give, and rejoice until you cannot do it anymore. Then fold.”

“You make it sound easy, but it’s not,” I say, feeling both insolent and amused.

“Want me to spell it out, darlin’?” God asks, long arms crossed over galactic chest, looking impish.

“Yeah,” I say. “Spell it out.”

“Love.” God says as if he’s in a spelling bee. “L. O. V. E.”

“Very funny,” I say.

“Then laugh,” God says. “Laugh your greedy, frightened, malignant, time-limited ass off.”

“I don’t mean funny like that,” I counter. “I mean you aren’t much help. I can spell ‘love’ all by myself.”

“Oh, really?” God asks and waits.

“Really,” I say firmly. But I’m lying. I’ll be asking for help within minutes. With apologies to Robert Frost, I’m often a lost child in the confusing woods when it comes to love.

“Now, ain’t that the Truth?” The Boundless Tangibility of Peace says to the Larger.

“For certain,” The Larger says. “Them woods is lovely, dark, and deep. But they ain’t no place for a chubby-cheeked babe.”

This cracks us up and we laugh our fool heads off. Yes, God is Love, the Big Breast in the Sky, the Larger, the Smaller, the Woods, the Clay, the Life, the Death. And yes, God is the Way Home. But until then, there’s work to do, and we all know how it’s spelled.

The Flower Show

Photo of Roxy Paine’s original work

It’s morning in New York City. I’m leaning against a pile of fluffy white pillows, gazing out the window, seven flights up, with a warm dark beer balanced on my belly. Across the narrow street, I see bricks, mortar, and shiny ventilation systems. I’m trying to quell my claustrophobia. Thank God for the beer. It wasn’t easy to find. “I guess anything worth anything is not easy to find, right?” I say to my faithful co-author.

“You tell me,” God says, her feet wrapped in the hotel’s luxurious comforter.

“Okay, I will,” I say. “For instance, you. You’re not easy to find.” But I catch myself. “No. Wait. Not true. You’re actually too easy to find. You smell terrible, you speak other languages, you have needs. It’s what the hell to do about you that’s hard to find. The Tao. The long and winding road. The way…it’s so foggy, steep, and dangerous. It’s slick. Nasty. And brutally beautiful.”

God leans over. Takes a sip of my beer. Rearranges her pillows, and sighs. “You are so right,” she says. “I do smell terrible. Not everyone is pretty, you know. Cut me some slack. Not everyone is perfect.”

I nod, but I don’t apologize. God continues. “Some of my favorite islands are going under. I make you this nice planet. You rip it to shreds. I make you all so similar, like family. You rip each other to shreds. Over money. Pride. Jobs.” She says ‘jobs’ with a sneer, pauses, and finishes with, “And you think I stink? Ha!”

I throw my arm over God’s familiar shoulder. “Yeah, you’re right. This is old terrain between us, isn’t it? Alive or dead, we mortals stink up the place. I’m glad you stink, too.”

God laughs. Suddenly, there are flowers. Funeral flowers. Wedding flowers. Light pink. Baby blue. Lilacs, clematis, columbine. And I am young, winning the junior division of the local flower show with flowers my grandmother grew. Then, I am old and all I grow are sunflowers, hollyhocks, and poppies. It seems we are doomed to seek comfort, solace, and the easy, deadly way.

“No, you’re not,” God says. “I’ve made sure you have reasonable options.”

I settle back in the pillows, take one more sip of beer, cork it, look straight at the New York God beside me, and shrug. God knows I won that flower show because my only opponent was particularly ugly and inarticulate. The sad truth is that her flowers were spectacular. Nearly perfect. And she grew them herself. My grandmother was proud anyway. I tried to tell myself, ‘A win is a win.’

But I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. God will linger at the finish line, waiting fondly for the losers until there’s no such thing anymore. And all the former losers will be busy, planting and protecting, sacrificing and celebrating, honoring and adoring everything that blooms.

Off-Gassing

I closed doors, opened windows, turned on fans, and lit the first fire in my new wood cookstove this morning so it could begin off-gassing. Then I took my latest rock project outside to spray with clear lacquer. The smell of that stuff can ruin your day if not your lungs. Some things necessarily involve the management of toxicity. In fact, as I think about it, there’s likely no avoiding toxicity as part of a larger process. Anywhere. Ever.

“You sure about that?” God asked.

“No,” I said, “but I bet you have an opinion.”

That cracked God up. “Ha! Me? An opinion? Did you forget I’m God? I don’t have opinions.” She said this with disdain.

I felt like doing a little off-gassing myself at this point. “Fine,” I said. “But back to toxicity. It’s like evil, right? Somehow, it’s part of the point. Rotten things smell terrible. Poop is disgusting. It’s the essential tug-of-war.”

“Not exactly.” God looked bored. “What’re you wearing for Halloween?” she asked. “I’m thinking witch, but I also love going as Quasimodo. That hump and giant mole really get to people. And it’s easier than dragging along a broom.”

I stared at God and then out the window. I wondered how the fire was doing. I wondered if the stones were dry. I wondered if I would ever get a straight answer from God.

“You won’t get many,” God said. “But I’m consistent. There’s that.”

“Like ‘love your enemies’ and all those other impossibilities?” I said, in a surly voice. “You mean how you’re the definition of compassion while horrid things happen all the time, right? You mean how deception is wrong, no matter what?”

God smiled, nodded, and lifted with a thousand wings. God drifted like smoke. God surfaced, a blue whale in a vast sea. I was enfolded in something beyond myself. It was nothingness, but I wasn’t worried. Something about me was holding strong. The basics. The dialectics.

“Don’t forget Lucifer,” God whispered and rubbed what felt like my head. “I love that little pipsqueak.”

“I’ve always known that,” I whispered back. “I’ll never forget.” I was making promises I had no way of keeping, but it seemed to please God anyway.

“Set the intention,” said Blue Whale before diving to the ocean floor. “Then hang on.”

So that’s what I’m doing. Intention is set and I’m hanging on. I will minimize my toxicity as best I can. But my reach exceeds my grasp, as I suspect it always will—and that damn new stove is back-drafting.

God’s New Job

“Hey, I just landed a job as an aerobics instructor,” God told me this morning, flexing his biceps. He struck a pose that accentuated his ripped thighs and taut butt. “Minimum wage, but it’s a union job with full benefits.” He was beaming. I was speechless. He continued. “Don’t look so shocked. It’s spiritual aerobics. We’ve been working on this idea that with the right music and attire, we could motivate humans to get their souls into better shape. Can you imagine a nice pair of Lulu Lemon leggings for the spirit?” He rubbed his giant hands together. “Now, that would be sexy.”

Occasionally, my job is to pop God’s bubble. Big ideas shimmer in the early morning light but they are transient. “God, darling,” I said gently. “You have some very creative notions, but…”

God interrupted with a toothy grin. “I knew you’d be a skeptic. I think pairing examples with music might do the trick. See, if I’m up front, and I shout something like bite back that sarcastic comment, swallow your pride, give beyond what you wanted to give while I jump around, it’ll look easy. I’ll make the heavy lifting of telling the truth appealing, and we can show people how they can increase their flexibility by offering the coats off their backs—all part of a good workout for the overweight ego.”

The thought of obese egos trying to keep their pulse rates in the optimal zone made me laugh, but I was unconvinced of the overall appeal even though God was ridiculously enthusiastic.

“I’m gonna convince people to try high-energy benevolence, to crawl out on some shaky compassion limbs. We’ll play the right tunes to inspire a few high-stakes sacrifices.”

“Sounds dangerous,” I said, a small knot forming in my stomach.

“Oh, totally,” God said. “But your job is not to stay alive as long as possible; your job is to stay as loving as possible. Get that soul in shape. Death is not elective, but cruelty is. It’s healthier to die trying to help than it is to live fat and sassy off the labor and poverty of others.”

I imagined my spirit in red spandex with an ivory sports bra. God smiled approvingly and turned to the drummer materializing in the kitchen. “We need a cosmic pulse,” he said. The drummer nodded, dreadlocks springing into action. She had multitudes of eyes and hands, and there were more snare drums than stars. Creation throbbed with the joy of now and the sorrow of wasted time as the walls dissolved. A blur of angels and devils leaped onto the dining table, guitars already wailing, hips gyrating. God handed me the bass. “Carry that bottom beat, baby,” he said. “Let’s rattle some bones.”

Goodwill

Today, I am wearing polka dot pants and a striped shirt. My hair is bedheaded in an unattractive way and my black and green socks feature a famous golfer. Yes, I’ve been to the church of Goodwill again, and as usual, God was present in abundance. I had to leave, but it was clear that God planned to stay until closing. While I was there, he managed to load five carts full of treasures as he chatted up the Russians and a shy woman who looked Asian. He commiserated with the disabled man and paid for three people’s purchases.

I don’t know what he did when the store closed for the night, but I came back to this borrowed house in this borrowed town and did laundry. We’re here because my friend Max is clinging, perhaps unwillingly, to the last strands of a well-lived life. At present, I’ve hidden myself upstairs to write and think. I hope God doesn’t come by. I’m preoccupied and sad, and it would be tedious to review all his finds.

“Tedious?” God says, incredulous. “You might be the slowest learner ever. How long have we been acquainted?”

“Depends,” I sigh. “At least half-a-century. But if we go with Psalms 139, then longer.”

For some reason, God thinks this is funny. Maybe I do too. Or maybe not. Who wants to count up every second they’ve breathed the rarefied air of this good earth? Music from downstairs drifts up. “I love it when you sing to me,” croons David Gabriel, singing Steven Merritt’s song, The Book of Love. It’s part of the Zoom pub quiz process that ends this semester’s happiness class. My job is to stay offline and out of sight. I’m fairly good at both, but I’m worried about God. He’s in a mood.

“Should I sneak down and wink at everyone on the screen?” God asks. “Or just check my Facebook page and download megabytes of things?”

“No,” I say firmly. “You’d bump him offline, and if you show up, you’ll cause trouble.”

“Exactly,” God says. “I’d like that.”

“What makes you happy, God?” I ask, hoping to distract him.

“Money,” God says. I roll my eyes. “Doing whatever I feel like doing. Driving a fast car. Taking more than my share. Getting drunk and stoned and all messed up. Keeping my wife pregnant.”

“Stop it,” I say, plugging my ears. This is not the time for irony.

God shrugs. “You asked,” he says. “Want to see some of my stuff? I found three navy blue shirts, this hat, and…” He glances at my face and stops mid sentence. His voice cracks. “There’s nothing more either of us can do,” he says. “Death will come when it comes.”

“But you’re hanging out there, right?” I manage to say.

“I can’t believe you’re even asking,” God says. But he says it in a soft, kind voice. It’s then that I notice the logo on the shirts and the baseball hat. Mariners. Max’s favorite team.