Texas hold ’em

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Just outside my window, near my elbow, a mourning dove is calling. It’s God. I know because of the way the sound has cracked me open. There are days when I wear layers of down, warm and pliant. It’s easy to move, propelled by gratitude, aware of eternity. And there are days I when I roll out of bed straight into my specially-made armor—harder to make breakfast but easier to hold it together. In my armor, there’s very little light, even less wonder, and it’s a bad idea to cry. This day began with armor. Now, I’m going to take it off. This may be a day I’ll need to cry.

The wind howled from the mouth of hell through the night. Only a breeze remains. Enough to lift the blue spruce branches so they can wave and remind me of what they’ve seen. Later, I’ll gather the fallen bits and pieces and make a wreath from the shedding and stripping of all we endure. Nothing goes unnoticed. Nothing goes unused or unattended. Nothing goes uncounted. And nothing remains unscathed. This is the promise of second-hand ribbons and wind-fallen sticks.

Usually, I think God is the source of pain in my heart, forming and reforming the never-ending questions of compassion, autonomy, endurance, and finality. Of course, alternatively, the pain in my heart might be indigestion or cardiac blockages soon to dislodge and take me out.

Life is one big game of poker. I like to sing along with Kenny Rogers, my spiritual guide: You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.*

I’m still sittin’ at the table, grinning like a damn fool. I know my face gives me away. I suspect I’m in hock up to my ears, but I know the Dealer. He happens to own this place. I wish he had higher standards. Some of these players smell terrible, some appear almost dead. And the table needs work. But the cards keep coming, so I’ll ante up. For now.

 

*Kenny Rogers sang it. Don Schlitz wrote it in 1976.

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.

Infinity and beyond

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“God,” I said.  “Do you care if humans believe in you?” We were gazing out the filmy curtains in a motel in West Virginia. God was relaxed and amicable. I wasn’t. My physical being was tormented by lack of sleep, stiff joints, road food and irrefutable evidence that the world was in big, big trouble.

“What do you mean by ‘believe’?” he asked.

Oh great. God was in a rhetorical mood.

I fought the impulse to shout YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN and said instead, “I mean like feeling sure you exist.”

Exist is an odd word,” God said, stroking his chin like a retired philosophy professor. “I actually don’t exist in any sense of the word you can grasp. I just am. And to answer your question, yes and no. I don’t care for my sake. I’m perfectly sufficient unto myself. But for your sakes…”

His voice cracked. He looked away, smoothed his robes. “For your sakes…” He shook his head and took a couple deep breaths. “I wish I could be of help.” His longing was clear.

This scared me. I said, “Well, some rather large groups down here have formulas. If we believe a certain way, you’ll save us. And forgive us, and reward us in heaven, or something like that.”

God shrugged. “I know. Humans seem to need that. It’s basically okay with me, but they waste a lot of time judging, fussing, and worrying when they could just relax and live the Truth. And there’s not a lot of time to waste.”

I did double-take. This is how I feel—apocalyptic—but I didn’t want God feeling that way.

“What?” I said. “There’s eternity, right? You’re the beginning, the end, the middle–the forever, right?”

“Sure,” God said. “I’m infinite. But you’re linear. For now, you’ve got this chance to do good things, little by little. To get better, deeper, wiser, kinder. To figure it out. I’ve mostly cleared the way. Opportunities abound.”

“Ugh,” I said. “That’s so hard. I’d rather be infinite.”

“Oh, don’t I know it,” God said. Then he burst into laughter, slapping his thigh, screeching with glee. “There’s the problem, right there. What a truly bad idea. You, in your current condition, infinite.”

I laughed, too. Tentatively. God laughed harder. He could barely breathe. His eyes squeezed shut. The jagged linearity in the room softened, as infinity dribbled down God’s weathered cheeks. I touched my hand to the shimmer, hope against hope, but the seconds on my digital watch blinked relentlessly forward.

The Dangers of the News

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God grabbed me by the throat this morning as I listened to the news. I squirmed and glared. The news ended, but God held on. Garrison Keillor read a poem by Sharon Olds in his soothing voice on my cheap clock radio.

“Let go,” I yelled. “Get thee behind me.” I was pretty sure that would loosen God’s hold, if only for a moment. Long enough for me to run somewhere, anywhere, up out of this basement, away from the imperfect walls surrounding me and the awful reports of the hateful world.

It didn’t work. The grip tightened. It was hard to speak, but I managed to say “I didn’t do it. It’s not my fault. And I can’t fix it.” Then I passed out.

When I came to, my head was in God’s lap. He was sitting on our frayed hide-a-bed loveseat, stroking my hair. I felt nauseated. I held perfectly still, afraid I was going to throw up on God. He used his bandana to wipe cold sweat from my forehead.

“You’re small,” he said. “And confused and tired.”

He leaned down and I gave up, slipping body and soul into those burning eyes, so dark there was no visible pupil. Pure obsidian. Black is not a color. It’s what happens when all colors have been absorbed. You can let go so completely you have nothing left to be.

When the florescent light flickered on, and the colors returned, God was gone. I turned my head from side to side, sat up, and held myself for a minute. This was not okay. God was not playing fair.

“Get back here,” I said. My voice was scratchy and there were bruises on my neck. “You can’t get away with this, God.”

“Unfortunately, I can,” God said in a voice older than any I’ve ever heard. “I’m tired, too. But I’m not confused or mortal. If you ask nicely, I’ll show you how to be kind today. But that’s all I’ve got.”

“Okay,” I agreed warily. “But could I be wise, too? And powerful? And funny?”

“Nope,” God said. “Try kind, and see where that gets you.”

God faded. I sat and faced myself. I didn’t want to be kind. I wanted to be nasty, resentful, and discontent. I wanted to blame, demand, and focus on everything that’s all messed up. Kind, huh? That damn black-eyed trickster.

I covered my neck in a blue silk scarf and set sail on the day. Kind. Well, at least I had a focus to distract myself from the fatal fears just under the surface of every evil act. Mine or theirs. I knew the relentless news would dog my steps. But I also knew the deep black place would hold me again if I need it to.

 

Brittle

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“God,” I said. “Blogging with you is like trying to shovel water out of a fast moving river.” God said nothing. This is one of God’s favorite responses. Even though I’m used to it, I don’t like it.

My motivation wanes and I assess the strength of my arms, the shape of the morning, the level of courage left after the terrors of the night. It isn’t easy to let go and make contact with something that vibrates like God. My brittle convictions are always in danger of breaking. My perch is precarious and I don’t look down for very long.

“Down is the wrong direction,” God says, the voice rising from the frost on the windows.

This time, I give God a taste of her own medicine. I say nothing.

“Down is the wrong direction, and anyway, the only real escape is breakage. Don’t be afraid. I work best with colorful fragments, contrite hearts, and brave, belligerent foolishness. I’m more of an abstract artist. I like mixed media. Exotic combinations.”

Even though I intended to stay silent, I couldn’t stop myself. “You are one twisted dude, God,” I said. I thought I was angry, but when God started laughing and dancing and throwing small stones in the air, I melted. I let go. I fell, and broke.

“Look what you did,” I screamed, terrified of all the jagged edges, the false starts, the weakened beliefs. Utter incoherence where once there’d been an idea. An explainable self, shattered.

“Yes,” God said. “Look what I did.”

Hoarding

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“So, God,” I said, happily finishing my toast and beer. “I just realized you’re a hoarder. A master of redundancy. I like that about you.”

God grinned sheepishly. It’s easy to see, once you stop and look at creation. I mean, how many stars do we really need? Or varieties of potatoes? I’ll admit, God’s a vastly better hoarder than I am. God’s stuff is well-organized and has just enough variation that nothing, nowhere, is exactly the same. Oh sure, there are doppelgangers and identical twins, but even then, nature (God’s middle name) creeps in and makes everything unique, yet slyly overlapping.

“Guilty,” God said. That silly grin still lit up the room. What a sweetheart. With a surge of affection, I let down my guard.

“I’m a hoarder, too,” I said. “But not as skilled as you. I gather up a lot of baggage and get pretty overwhelmed. Could you help me get better?”

“No can do,” God said, head shaking, arms crossed. Not mean, but firm.

This hurt my feelings, but I’d sort of expected that answer. And I knew what was coming next.

“Honey, I don’t think like you. I have my ways, but they aren’t your ways. They can’t be. You’re not me. For this, you should give thanks.” God’s voice was stern, but the eyes betrayed a certain amusement. Even rebuffed, I felt deep affection for this maddening, whimsical, frightening breakfast visitor.

“Want a tomato?” I asked. “They’re fresh from the garden.”

“Sure,” God said. “And I like your hair that way. Did you get it cut in Mexico?”

This seemed a bit obsequious. I mean, God was there, right? My haircut wasn’t news.

“Sorry,” God said. “Just thought I’d make a little small talk. Yes, I was there for your haircut. And I’m here now. Good tomato….Definitely here now. But I think you know, I’m sizzling in a burning forest. And spinning in the eye of a hurricane. And I just crawled across the border of Myanmar. I need rest.” God’s eyes had begun to blaze an iridescent orange. Transcending. Descending. Above. Below. Around. Within.

Suddenly, small talk sounded very nice. But out of the question. It does no good to pretend. I’d seen the assault rifles in San Miguel. And the women begging, even as I overate and took invasive pictures without permission. I wear the cloak of my fucking mortality–my imperfections as license. And I hoard like the twisted little shadow of God that I am.

“Whoa,” God said, putting a hand on my all-too-physical shoulder. “Ranting and self-denigration won’t help. I said I was sorry. Maybe you should finish that beer and take a little walk.”

“Ok,” I said. “Sounds good.” And that’s what I did.

Landing

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In 40 minutes, I will land. We will land. The degrees of separation will fluctuate wildly while my internal Geiger counter recalibrates. Then all will settle, and I’ll make educated guesses about the radiance of God’s face and the relative dangers of the mundane.

No doubt the landing will be turbulent because in Mexico City, God looked bored and restless. Security singled me out, emptied my bags, patted me down. The apologetic guard had thin pink lips. She was extraordinarily short and efficient. God chuckled before boarding the plane like royalty, dressed in pilot’s regalia.

At 30,000 feet, I am beyond redemption, but then everything is. The question is less about redemption–more about restoration, which apparently, will be a real bitch. There’s nothing subtle about restoration. It extends beyond the absurd and tragic, earth scorched and drenched, bones burned clean. The lovely molds and mildew will recede only after, somehow, it’s over, and this particular crisis is removed from the cross and buried.

Explanations sit stoically beside me, overweight and ugly. Back in Mexico, they stare out the windows of the purple bus, flutter in the hands of children selling trinkets in the rain.

The seat belt sign is illuminated. Items in the overhead bins have shifted. Visibility is limited by smoke and tears. But we will be landing shortly. This is terrible. And perfect.