Bucket Lists

Nearly all the windows in our house are oriented south for solar gain, but the view to the north is exceptionally nice. Our inner space reflects a set of values, givens, and limits. We’ve filled most rooms with books and rocks to hide lapses in judgment. Outside, the garden has gradually improved—I love repurposing metal coated with rust and twisted stumps that are not yet dust. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

“Yes,” God says, disrupting my existential mulling. “I love repurposing, too. Especially the fragile and distorted.”

“Hi there, God,” I say in a falsely chipper voice. “How about you be nice and take care of me today? Let’s exercise, write, do some art, drink green smoothies, and then after I’ve fallen fast asleep, how about you carry me gently into the next realm?”

“What?” God says in mock surprise. “You want to cash it in?”

“Well, yeah. Or, maybe,” I say. “I don’t like aging. I want an easy way out.”

“An easy way out,” God echoes, nodding. “Thank you for being honest with me.” This is a standard phrase therapists use when clients drop a verbal bomb about their homicidal, suicidal, malicious, vindictive, hopeless, violent urges and fantasies. It buys a little time.

But God doesn’t need to buy time. I’m suspicious. God already knows I’m as afraid of dying as the next person, but I’m deeply ambivalent about staying alive. Fighting for every last breath soaks up resources, drains loved ones, involves a fair amount of suffering, and has the same outcome. What’s a few more days or even years if they are filled with pain, struggle, and hardship? It may look heroic, but there are many ways to define heroic. Leaving willingly, gracefully, at the right time might be another definition. I glance sideways at God.

God glances back. “How’s that bucket list coming?” she asks, with a mischievous smile. “I know you’re inclined toward rescuing and saving, but don’t put the world, or yourself, on the list. You can save neither.”

“God, darling,” I say. “I don’t even know what ‘save’ means. And how’s your bucket list coming along?”

“Thanks for asking, sweetie,” God says. “But let’s talk about why you want to know.” This is another classic therapy maneuver; turn the question back on the client. But then God reaches over, takes a drink of my coffee, and salutes herself in one of my many mirrors. This is not a classic therapy move. Too invasive. Too intimate. Impulsively, I look straight at God, grab her cup, and take a swig. The coffee is hot, dark, and bitter. I want to spit it out, but God bows her head, palms together, touching her lips. I have the distinct impression she’s cheering me on, so I swallow and raise the cup. We look in the mirror together. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

Naked in the End

You will be happy to know the accent wall is now midnight blue, the ladder-backed chair rescued from the dump, lime green, gold, maroon, and yellow, and though my life has not gotten noticeably better, I used recycled paint, so there are five fewer dented cans awaiting resurrection in the basement. They are empty. I’m happy. I’m drinking the leftover Malbec wine for breakfast, but I would prefer dark beer. We must all make sacrifices.

Among the things set free by the storm last night are five rotten cottonwoods, one majestic willow, and twenty-six irrigation pipes rattled loose from their line of duty and sent tumbling dangerously through the darkened sky. Those of us left behind have accepted the fact that we will not be able to save the planet by ourselves. The wind has agreed to help but at great cost. Millions of unwilling children have lined up along the shoreline hoping for food. The tide will rise and take them. Their elders will follow. Millions of other species have unwittingly signed on for extinction, simply by being themselves—ugly, simple, and in the way.

For a while, we will fight to save the pandas, the owls, and the wealthy; the beautiful and those who make us laugh. I, for one, will write words infused with angry sympathy for those born into suffering, born with few options, those who then hate, radicalize, and destroy. The war games continue.

I kick at the shins of God, trying to wake them up. This cannot be the Original Intention. I am a foolish Cinderella. They are a flimsy Prince Charming. I am Jack. They are the Giant. I plant magic beans. They are the purveyors of binder weed and quack grass. I install solar panels. They are the sun and patchy morning fog. They are the good witch, the man behind the curtain, the placebo effect. They are a modest chemical reaction, and we are atoms splitting, cloaked in a thick shawl we’ve drawn over our shoulders, thinking it was pure merino wool. It is not. It is denial. I have considered freezing to death instead of protecting myself with lethal and selfish lies. When souls stand naked in the end, truth will be the only shelter. Not power. Not possessions. Not beauty. Not brilliance. Truth is always grounded in humility, compassion, and sacrifice. Sometimes, to practice, I wear clothes thinned to threads by others and endure the brutally cold light for as long as I can.

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.”

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.

On the Face of It

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The most disconcerting image of God any of us has to deal with is the one in the bleary mirror every morning. True, God appears in a lot of unsavory, overwhelming, challenging guises. She flies in on a broomstick with a stolen dog, her backpack filled with ruby red slippers. He spreads himself brilliant across the evening sky and sprinkles himself into a billion stars He cries like a baby. With a hammer in her huge hands, she takes down wall after wall. I like watching. I like an arm’s-length God. But I don’t like that image of God in the mirror–that fatally flawed stretch of skin and bones I know from the inside out.

Sometimes, I try to avoid eye contact. Other times, I look for the innocence that was once there. I think I see vestiges of something beyond, but it’s elusive. Of course, I see my mother, my children, that genetic overlay. There are scars. Errant eyebrows. In my eyes, the piercing steely blue of the Irish.

“Hello,” I said to the mirror this morning. I do this sometimes. It creates a little distance. But for some reason, I added, “How can I be of service today?”

And to my surprise, my face answered.

“This day won’t be back,” it said. “This day is a guest. Be kind to it. This day will be a progression of sojourning moments, hoping for your attention. Remember, you are crystalized time.”

“Say what?” I said. “Crystalized what?”

“Time,” my face said. “You embody a fraction of the cosmos for a miniscule, monumental flash of linearity. And I must say, you wear it well.”

“Why, thank you,” I said back to my face. “But you know that’s not true.” I pointed to the worst of my imperfections. My face laughed. “You poor thing,” it said. “Those are your best features. Proof of your existence. Like I said, you’re crystalized time. And time is a craggy, wizened old thing. It likes nothing better than transporting imperfections into eternity where they are fodder for the greater good.”

“I didn’t sign on for this,” I said. But my face lifted into a smile, and I knew that in fact, I had signed on for this. For this day. For this chance. I inventoried my defects and damages, circling them like wagons around my fears. Then I enhanced the patchy curve of my eyebrows with a sharp clear line, removed some unwanted facial hair, and blew myself a kiss.

“Let’s roll, gentlemen,” I said to God and the pretty little moments at my feet. “We’ve got this.”

 

Grieving in the Old Blue Chair

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Today, I sit in the light of the rising sun, rocking myself in the old blue chair–the one I loaned my mom before she died. It’s an unusually small recliner. For a few months, with planning and effort, she could get out of it by herself. But then she couldn’t. She fell and laid helpless on the institutionally-bland carpet for who knows how long? They found her tangled in the floor lamp, alive but not coherent, her body bruised from her efforts to get up. That was Mom. Never stop trying to get back up.

Dylan Thomas would have approved. Mom did not “go gentle” into any dark nights. In her stubborn way, she raged against the dying of the light. When faced with a challenge, she’d clamp her thin lips tight, stomp on the gas and shoot down the road, her ever-shrinking body taut with determination. She’d arrive in her shiny white Ford, peering at the road from just above the steering wheel. She never stayed long.

God has stopped by to reminisce. He’s wearing decades on his shoulders, and our whole upstairs has become quite crowded. “Oh God,” I say, shifting to make room, glad for the company. “Remember how she believed that when she got to heaven, she’d have to give Dad an account of how she managed the ranch after he died?” God nods, a little teary. He really admired my mom over the years. “And remember how much she gave away?” I added. God smiles with pride.

There’s not much else to say. Those last three days, death pulled her tenderly down through the layers of life until it was just her brain stem fighting for air. The Wasabi sting of emotion threatens my placid mood as I sit with the memory of her  insistent breath, sucked in and out, in and out, irregular and awful. Not a memory anyone needs to have.

After she fell out of this chair, she never sat in it again. I brought it home—slightly more worn. I’ll keep it a while.

“Tell her, will you?” I ask God.

“Tell her yourself,” God answers, and holds up a mirror Mom carried in her purse. She used it to reapply her lipstick and smooth her hair. God slips open the purple plastic cover, and I see the unadorned eyes and lips of eternity–of now and forever. I see the eyes of God, wide like a baby, and the lips of God, as full as Bob Marley’s, singing.

I fight to let God’s swaying body save me–to believe in mercy and compassion in this broken, greedy, hungry world. To use my breath for good, and welcome my demise with grace. I rock in the old blue chair, sun warming my bones, while God, as audacious and angular as ever, dips and weaves as he hammers out the beat on the steelpan drums.

God Comes Back

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After that short break, God came back rested, full of new ideas, in one of those rare moods where I knew I could say pretty much anything that came to mind. Over the years, I’ve liked these times a great deal. I’ve asked crazy questions or pushed God for proof of something or the other, often getting dramatic responses. Rooms filling with liquid orange. Inner voices warning me not to jump. Lightening. Severe clairvoyance. One time, the face of God went by, inches from the window of my van. He was driving a semi, loaded with cars. Thanks to the ice, all hell had broken loose on I90. God made eye contact and I knew my life had been handed back again.

Today, the topic on my mind was drag queens. A famous drag queen had made the statement that we’re all God in drag. This seems unlikely. No matter how dressed up I get, I know I’m not God, even though I’d like to be. But the other direction? In my experience, when God comes by, the drag queens sigh in envy.

“You sure look happy,” I said as an opener. God grinned and nodded. I continued. “So I’m assuming you had a good vacation.”

God acted like I’d said something very funny. He belly-laughed for a while and then said, “Vacation?”

“Yeah. Remember? Your break?”

“Oh, that,” God said. “That was all about you, chickadee. I never go anywhere.”

My defenses went up, anger flared. “Don’t call me chickadee,” I said. God can make me unbelievably mad sometimes.

“I’m not blaming you,” God said. “I totally understand your frustration. Yes, I took a break, and of course, I never left. I’m still in the Garden. You’re there with me. Your substance is mine. Mine is yours. It’s just that you have boundaries. And it turns out, I don’t. I’m God.”

I stuck my fingers in my ears, sang la-la-la-la-la, closed my eyes, and staggered out of view. From a cosmic perspective, I’m sure I looked ridiculous. A whirling dervish of denial. But as any alcoholic will happily tell you, denial is useless.

After a few minutes. God caught up and tapped me on the shoulder. She was wearing bright red heels. Her platinum blond hair was piled high, her face heavily made-up. She was oddly beautiful. Oddly safe. She wrapped me in the baby blue boa around her neck, slowed the music, and we swayed in the outrageous splendor of being together, moving exactly to the beat.

Charitable Giving

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I positioned my cold feet in the warm sunlight, determined to sit until the embers in the stove or the chickadees outside the window convinced me that anything matters. So far, it hasn’t worked. I’m in a wicked post-holiday mood. I just threw out three beautifully-rising loaves of bread after discovering that flax can indeed go rancid, and this is not good for you. I’d taken a little taste of the dough. It was unusually bitter, which led to the research, which led to the painful placement of the loaves in the compost bucket. I hate that things go rancid.

I want everything to stay whole and healthy, even in large quantities. I often cloak my hoarding tendencies under colorful claims of creativity and eventuality. But I know the truth about me. I’m a mixture of pioneer ancestors and an excessive culture. Like God, I see potential redemption in even the worst of the worst, and try to make use of everything. I hate letting go.

The chickadees are gone. Wild turkeys are pacing the perimeter of the garden, calculating whether flying over the tall fence will result in enough nourishment to justify the energy expenditure. They don’t know about the rancid flax-laden dough about to appear. This may sway their decision. I trust their digestive systems can make use of rancid flax, or they’ll know enough to turn up their pointy beaks and strut away.

“And you?” God says gently, speaking from deep within the pile of nearly-rotten wood I’m trying to burn up.

I pause to think of myself as a calculating turkey, pacing the outer edge of Eden. “No idea,” I answer. That kind of wisdom is a distant memory in the oldest part of my aging brain. But what I do know is that a great, rancid toxicity is blanketing the earth from massive accumulations of wealth. And I don’t know how to shake it off. Even as I scorn the greed of those who have too much, I wonder how I can get a little more. I hate this about myself.

I try my usual cure. “Give until it hurts, you selfish hypocrite,” I say in a nearby mirror.

God rushes toward me like a grandmother saving a child from a coiled rattlesnake.

“No!” she shouts, waving her arms. “No. Stop it. That kind of talk doesn’t help anyone.”

I jump back, startled. She throws a blanket over the mirror.

“Take a beer and sit among your possessions,” she says sternly. “Be in your body. Be in my body. Open your soul. And notice where it hurts, darling. Then, gently, give. But give until it heals. That’s all. Give until it heals.”

This is a complete impossibility. But that’s one of the things I like about God. She often pairs the impossible with dark beer.

 

Hunting

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God likes a big campfire when he’s out hunting in the fall, cavorting with the creative forces in the universe. “Smoke follows beauty,” he jokes, working his way to the upwind side. Back when I was innocent, I liked campfires too. Now I know too much. I want to impress upon God the need to minimize polluting recreational activities such as jet skis, snowmobiles, travel on airplanes, NASCAR, and fire, but it seems unlikely he’ll listen. I guess when you’re God, you can clean up after yourself with wind and rain, more assured of balance in the long haul than the average human.

And I’m not the average human anyway. I’m an angry worrywart. I hate the idea of the massive environmental “corrections” future generations will face, and the scarred up, battered little earth they’ll call home. I feel chronically guilty and uncertain. God has a slightly larger perspective. In fact, after toasting his third marshmallow, he asks a few of his extended selves to double-check the pressure on the subatomic particles to make sure no more big bangs occur until he’s ready.

Then he winks at me. “Guilt is a conversation, not a resting place.”

The wood he throws on the fire is from Belize—little pieces of hardwood he salvaged from decades of devastating logging practices. His cavalier attitude has me hopping mad. I grab his arm to stop him, but I’m off balance. I fall into the flames. He watches for a minute, then joins me. We disintegrate in the brilliant light, but it doesn’t hurt. God is the wood. God is the fire. God is the oxygen, depleted and rare. We burn to the ground. We burn into heaven. We’re ash, floating in the frigid air.

“Let me go,” I beg. “I don’t want to be this expansive. I can’t stand being this small.”

God ignores my pleas but his cosmic children come up from the ground, down from the clouds to repair my body. Living water flows in their veins. I drink. In silence, God offers me venison from his recent kill. It’s been seared perfectly black over his blazing holiness. With reluctant reverence, I eat.

“Go, now, sweetheart,” God says. “And take some fire. There’s plenty.”

“No,” I say, looking him straight in the eye. “I won’t.”

I plead for a different outcome. I remind him of the beauty in a single ladybug, and his regrets after the flood. He wavers. For a nanosecond, I see down into the sweet center where guilt is nothing and trying is everything. This is what I love about God. He wavers, and we have a chance to see.

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.