The Dance

Sometimes, I don’t get along with the co-author of this blog all that well. We argue, give each other the silent treatment, and land low blows, but then we usually find our way to uncomfortable compromises. It isn’t exactly quiet desperation, but close. We’re like the gruesome twosome in the couples counseling literature—together for the long haul, though there are days it isn’t pretty. Arguing with God is a thankless task and there is scant evidence it does much good, but what are the alternatives? Eat curses and enemies for breakfast with loaded guns across our laps? Slide blithely toward extinction? Give shallow thanks for our short-sighted blessings, imagined or real? Die alienated, resentful, or afraid? No.

For instance, this morning I say, “Hear my prayers, oh mighty and all-knowing God.” (I only start this way when I’m in a certain mood.) “I implore you to move most of earth’s population to other planets. Provide everyone with birth control, shelter, and nutritious food. Let the artists do art. Let the lovers love. Let the earth recover its incredible balance. Disable all weaponry. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Amen.”

My co-author responds. “Hear my suggestions, oh puny human,” she says. “Feed the hungry. Provide shelter and comfort to one another. Limit your offspring. Visit those who are ill or imprisoned. Give cheerfully and pay your taxes willingly. Elect rulers with integrity and compassion. Stop relying on that which is nonrenewable. Stop using poisons and short-cuts. Stop using weapons. Stop acting like you own the place. You’re just passing through. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Selah.”

Our longings are similar, but we disagree about who’s responsible. Many of us can’t even carry a tune. Who should take the lead?  

“Not me,” God says. “I’ve already given you all you need.”

“I don’t think so,” I say.

“Of course you’d say that,” God says, in a firm mother’s voice. “You’ve made a royal mess. Clean your room.”

“I would,” I claim, shamefaced. “But I don’t know which one’s mine.”

“Doesn’t matter,” God says. She hands me a dust cloth, a mop, a broom, knee pads, a toolkit, water bottles…

“Stop!” I say, “I already have all that stuff.”

God grabs a can of oven cleaner. “Then let’s get going,” she says. “I need time to practice. I’m combining tap with some exquisite break-dance moves for my next performance.”

This is a great motivator. I love watching God dance, her muscular body supple and yielding, her hair snapping like lightning. Sometimes, she invites the universe to be her partner, and spectacular forces shape themselves to her. Sometimes, she dances solo. Either way, it is magnificent. I gather rags and rubber gloves, and away we go. I’m not sure what, but something will be shiny clean by noon.

Trees Walking

“God,” I said, after a hot, dry afternoon of good and bad happenings. “How are you different than coincidences or things we can’t explain?”

“I’m not,” God said. “In other dimensions, they don’t even call me God.”

I’ve always known that had to be the case, but knowing hasn’t reduced my longing for a provable formula, a reliably vengeful God, a certain ally, or an intelligent designer with some degree of accountability.

I sighed and asked politely, “What do they call you, then?”

God smiled. “Ah, let’s see. If I put the terms in English for you, I’m sometimes called Attribution, Allah, Beelzebub and Baby’s Breath, Creator, Calamity, Dalliance, Dendroid, Emmanuel, Ego…” She paused and smiled. “Shall I go on?”

“Well, the ABCs are a little boring,” I said. “How about a different alphabet? Or the language of a neighboring planetary system?”

This was perhaps an unwise request from an older soul like myself. God grabbed the brittle corners of my imagination and shook the filmy cataracts loose. My eyes beheld a night sky so dense with possibilities that it almost instantly blinded me. The names of God were a thousand suns, unleashed. God waved her baton; the symphony of all her names was deafening. I intended for my tongue to move, but it would not. With great effort, I raised my finger to signal for help.

“Enough?” God asked.

“Too much,” I said, as I tried to gather what was left of my sensibilities.

“Hand them over,” God said.

“No,” I said. “They’re mine.”

God shook her mane, waved her appendages, leathered up, and roared around in circles on a ruby red Harley. Followers stampeded behind, raising clouds of luminescence. A cacophony of unearthly mirth blew through the trees and with help from a gifted artist, they were transformed into maniacal silver laughter. I couldn’t hold on.

“Uncle,” I shouted.

“Good one,” God shouted back.

“No, I mean I give up,” I said.

“I know what Uncle means,” God said as she put me back together, muttering to herself in languages from beyond and beneath. “There.” She patted my head which felt slightly askew. “That’ll do for now.” She started to walk away but then gave me a second glance. “You’re getting a little tired of the circularity, aren’t you, honey?”

“No!” I lied. “No, not at all.” With the few shreds of pride still at my disposal, I stood erect. “You have a nice day, God” I said. Then I turned my back, rolled under the nearest pile of dead branches, and held very still. As my eyes adjusted, I could see that I was not alone. So many sentient beings, so many innocent souls hiding from the birds of prey.

Maybe God was right. Maybe I am a little tired. This will be an excellent place to rest.

NYT2009
(One of Roxy Paine’s amazing creations)

Volcanic

God slept rough last night alongside the cooling embers of volcanic rock from the eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo in Africa. She awoke exposed, porous and pure as the lava itself, but this did not make her happy. She shook me awake to ask if I would bury her under the acres of rich loam currently planted in alfalfa so she could begin reclaiming her complexity. To be simplified to lava is painful.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed as I opened my eyes in the dim light of dawn and ran my hands over a face so jagged and pitted it made terrible acne seem easy. “Oh sweet God. You’ve become stone.”

“Yes,” God said, woeful, but with a shred of hope. “Lava stone. I’ve heard it has healing properties, but I’d rather move along. Bury me in the topsoil, please. There’s still time. I’ll take care of the rest.”

I reluctantly agreed. We held hands as we walked through the verdant fields made fertile by thousands of years of runoff from the surrounding and willing hills. I was glad I’d remembered my cowhide gloves, both because the hand of God was razor sharp and because the shovel I was dragging along was old. The handle was splintered, and I knew I would be digging for a long time, possibly the rest of my life.

The squawking of the wild and noisy geese nesting across the river helped me find my center as God chose the perfect place to be interned. I wished for another way, but life consists of trying to solve things that are not solvable. This is something gradually revealed over the years allotted to those defined as alive. They say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. This is true, but then the same can be said for all deaths; ultimately all problems are subjective and temporary, and all deaths seem permanent.

The bounce of sound across water is predictable but not guaranteed.

“God,” I said. “Are you sure?” I was wondering why God insisted on being buried on such a beautiful day. I wondered why I had to be the one digging. I wondered where this weathered old shovel came from.

“Yes,” God said, the nod of her head causing tremors under my feet. Her voice is not measured in decibels but rather revealed in the marrow of reverberating bone. I broke ground, putting body and soul into the sink of the shovel, giving thanks for the leather protecting my thin, unlovely skin from slivers and blisters. I have callouses, but they are often an insufficient defense for these long hot days and the softening effect of sweat.

Nothing to be Done

Sometimes I take God by the neck and shake him until he goes limp and falls like rain and dust and shards of stained glass at my feet—a deadly mix of elements within my power to restore but broken and unlikely. I walk away barefoot, continually astonished at the human propensity to self-destruct.

Usually, the high wind warnings are accurate. Anything of value or consequence must be weighted down or be lost. But somehow the birds stay light and navigate the currents of air with enviable grace. It’s easy to resort to anger. It’s tempting to bow down to lesser gods and find temporary nourishment by eating the tender parts of your own soul. Tempting, but not wise. This morning, I pause and chew my thumb nail instead. Penitent. Pensive. Wishing I had the patience of Job or the dark wings of Kali.

God assembles himself. I keep my hands in my lap. God swivels his hips. I nod noncommittally. God leans in and whispers, “I can tell you where the chickens are hiding their eggs.” He’s flirting. I resist.

“I can predict the next storm,” he says. I shrug.

“Hell, I can control the next storm,” he adds, trying to get a rise out of me. It works.

“Do you think I don’t know that?” I ask, exasperated. “Do you not understand how hard that is to hear? You can control a storm but not an army? You can make it rain, but things die of drought and starvation?”

When I’m like this, sometimes God gets irritable and defends himself, claiming to suffer along with everyone else. Sometimes, God gets all loving and huge and tries to instill hope. And sometimes, God just takes a single sip of my dark morning beer and waits.

And I wait. And the silence reminds me of wonder. And the slow-moving clouds remind me of water. And I remember the unusually fat worm I dug up yesterday. Of their own volition, my calloused hands come together in a kind of praise—a grudging acceptance of very thin skin.

There’s nothing to be done about God. Ground cover only lasts so long. Light breaks through. Dirt blows in. Rain eventually falls and the magical seeds sprout; rhizomes shoot along in the dark until they surface uninvited. The tenacity is a splendor and a curse.

“You remind me of quackgrass,” I tell God, breaking our shared revery.

“Funny,” God says. “I was thinking the same thing about you.”

Windbreak

A crumpled pile of receipts rests on the table in front of me. And a beer. And a list of things to do. Outside, dawn light sparkles on the frosted frame of what might become a raised bed garden next spring, assuming spring arrives, and I can lift a shovel. A green wheel-barrel with a flat tire has blown over, hollyhock stalks bend and whip, and solar holiday lights that’ve twinkled for over a year still twinkle. The tool shed door has come unhinged in the screaming wind, brilliant red flashing helplessly back and forth. This view is not the one I will have when I become molecular, reconfigured, and nearly weightless, but I’m grateful for the shelter. It will do for now.

The troubles have been thinning God down again. His head looks too big for his skinny neck. He has no appetite for violence. The drug-induced haze of belief and disbelief, bad dreams, and short lives, twist around his frame like invasive weeds choking airways God had hoped would stay open. The assumption of permanence in a brutal, impermanent, world is just the kind of folly a hopeful God might fall for. I don’t want to make things worse, so I let God sit. And God lets me sit.

I wonder if the molecular structure of a Nazi or a billionaire is significantly different than God’s. Or mine. I wonder if the molecular structures of those whose actions have ended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are similar to the molecular structures of those they’ve killed. I wonder if the wind will be able to tell the difference between strands of human humility and jagged fragments of human arrogance when it carries these remnants into the stratosphere. I suspect so. God rides this wind. God is this wind.

When we sniff the soft round head of a baby, don’t we realize we’re inhaling God? When we execute an inmate or take an officer down, the audacity is an accelerant for the fires lit by fear. The costs are horrific. I know. The receipts are scattered on the coffee table. God sometimes considers going back to the drawing board; he has lists and ideas. He has an app. He has a heart and bodies and a vision. His surnames are Evolution, Compassion. Charity. And Sacrifice. And no matter what he creates, who he marries, or which children he adopts, he’s not going to change those names. At least that much is permanent.

One of the reasons God and I drink a half-beer in the morning is that we dread the latest bad news here on this little earth. Ritual can be calming. All week, God’s been taunted, tortured, abused, executed, raped, starved, and burned alive; things done to feed cancerous egos in the names of various gods, all of which are vicious. All of which are dead. But whatever it is that God is, it is not dead. A word to the wise: Even when it’s howling, it’s best to befriend the wind.

Covid God

farm workersImage from National Center for Farm Worker Health

John and I have been trying to make some short upbeat videos for people struggling with our current global crisis. I’ve asked God if she wants to sit in or be of any help at all, but as the song says “…I get no offers. Just a come-on from the whores on 7th avenue…” Paul Simon knew back then, sometimes we get so lonesome, we take some comfort there—from the lesser ones. The ones whose bodies are for sale—or whose lives are always on the front lines to feed and serve us.

“I love that song,” God says, suddenly overly present. “And I love that line about how a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

“Well. Hello, God,” I say, more exasperated than surprised. “Where’ve you been?”

“The usual,” God says. I take a closer look. She doesn’t look well. She’s got a ridiculous looking homemade mask on her face. She coughs. “I’ve decided to forgo the ventilator,” she says. “I’m definitely old enough to be in the high risk group, but I think I can beat this thing…and if not…” She shrugs and sits down, winded and gray. I back up six feet. She looks up and nods.

“Yes, go wash your hands,” she says. “Wash your hands of me. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I say. There’s no point in lying to God. “You make me crazy mad. I don’t understand how you suffer with those who suffer, rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Are you God or are you not?”

“Up to you,” God says, struggling to take a breath.

“Lie down,” I say, fluffing a pillow. I run to scrub up and get a mask. She’s stretched out, eyes closed. I put God’s head in my lap, and with gloved hands, I touch her sweaty forehead. “Can I get you anything at all?” I whisper. She opens her fever-glazed eyes and looks into my soul. I can see it takes a lot of effort. She says nothing. She just looks straight into my center for as long as either of us can stand. She touches her chest. A wave of nausea hits me as I realize the entire earth is short of breath. “Feels like a ton of bricks,” she murmurs.

I give her a sip of water. It’s all I have.

Five Part Harmony

more cranes

I

Magic is harder to come by as the brain gels and arteries harden. It takes more courage to jump when your bones have webbed, but jumping is required for regrowth. No parachutes. No bungees. No soft landings. Not even cushioned shoes. You owe this to yourself and generations to come. Just jump.

Remember when you were young? Magic lived in your disconnected tissues and made a practice of fooling you all the time. Your tears were sudden, and your laughter rose from the belly of a good and jovial earth. I knew you then. I had a rainbow of toes and fingers and lent them to the sky without a second thought. I knew God then, too. Promises untested and playful, simple to reconfigure–easy as spiders or buttons to swallow.

But now? God woke me this morning, dangling precariously, kicking his legs like a puppet hoping to get away. The gingerbread man. Mary Poppins with a faulty umbrella. Fragile and tattered, ready for anything but breakfast. But breakfast was the only thing I was ready for. Not magic. Not jumping. I sent God away so I could make toast.

II

The human brain is easily seduced by a nice, clean dichotomy; such a delight to be on the right side of wrong, a relief to declare zero tolerance, a comfort to await the final vanquishing of evil.

God glides back in, refuses the offer of toast, and declares, “There are no absolutes.”

“Ha!” I say, having rehearsed this come-back many times. “Are you absolutely sure?”

III

The universe is expanding. Things collide and collapse. They warp and rework themselves. Down under the event horizon, gravitational forces consume the entire electromagnetic spectrum from infrared to ultraviolet. But fear not! God lives in the black holes where captured light awaits definition. General relativity, while offensive and frightening, is the source of all good news. It’s where we find tolerance, forgiveness, and the will to try again.

IV

Space shivers because she wears such thin clothing and like the worthy suitor he is, God wraps his jacket lovingly around her shoulders. They make an adorable couple, God and the space time continuum. God’s mother is proud of the gentleman she’s reared. “I never raised a hand to him,” she says with such love that another planet is spontaneously born. This should humble us all.

As for me, I confess that I’ve raised my hand, formed a fist, shot a gun, drowned some kittens, eaten flesh, picked a fight, and weaponized my words. Sometimes, I’ve tried to befriend zero as if I’m not to blame. As if I need no grace. Rarely have I had the courage to offer my jacket and certainly not my cloak as well.

V

Thousands of starlings take over the sky but not a single starling falls. The perfect snow is scarred in every direction by hungry deer, their heads buried in the failed harvest. When I touch my lips, I can feel the warm truth of this moment, but when I roll them inward, they disappear.

Public Meeting

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Last night God and I attended a public meeting. The images and verbal snippets lodged in my brain and ruined my sleep. Through the night, I wanted to check in with God, but she was slumbering soundly. I had to toss and turn, rage and grieve on my own.

Everyone I know (except God) is the product of sperm and egg, about nine month incubation, and a birthing. But these shared origins guarantee little when it comes to getting along. Are some of us programmed to be mean? Violent? Hateful? Unable or unwilling to be civil? The animosities in the room sharpened the atmosphere until it felt like I was breathing knives.

Those smirking, disrespectful, smug, lie-believing fools were so offensive I had to fight to remember that they are members of my species. Conspiracy theories were in full bloom. There were glib reassurances that the corporations in question care deeply about the earth and are managed with love for all humanity. As if. So much posturing and paranoia. No one should be able to tell anyone else what to do–especially if there’s money to be made. Facts be damned. The common good be damned. We vote and hate. Or don’t vote and hate.

And while we attack each other in our nanoscopic corners, the earth warms its hands over the fire of our denial-fueled rush to extinction, waiting to be rid of us so the healing can begin.

God continued to snooze as I seethed. I gave her a gentle shake. She’s so beautiful at rest, with her feral hair flowing every direction–and much tamer when her eyes are closed. Maybe it’s better to let sleeping Gods sleep, but I couldn’t. I needed perspective. Connection. I shook her shoulder a little harder.

Her eyes flew open. She bolted upright and shouted, “You gotta hit hard and clean. Double-fisted.” She rubbed her forehead. “Egads, what a dream! I was a boxing coach. The little people were in a fight with the Goliaths again. No sling shots in sight.”

“So you had them slugging it out?” I asked.

“Yeah.” She looked a little sheepish.

“We have guns and nuclear bombs now, you know,” I reminded God as I handed her some coffee.

“Mmmm,” God said. “Yeah. Probably not the best idea. But it was only a dream.”

“I wish,” I said, and punched the air. I double-punched a sofa pillow.

“That’s good,” God said. “But move your feet. Fancy little dance steps work the best.”

I shuffled my feet, still focused on my fists.

“No. Dance,” God said again. “I mean it. Dance.”

“I can’t,” I said, ashamed. “There’s no music.”

God gave me a look and dissolved into a chorus of insects and meadowlarks, a string quartet, a crystal-shattering soprano, three warbling old women. The heart of God pounded, waves crashed, wind screamed, billions of people sobbed and laughed. The howler monkey, the cicadas, coyotes, the bullfrogs and molecules, neutrinos and nightmares—an astounding choir.

The Maestro’s baton slashed the air, wild hair snapping in circles around her head. “There you go, love,” she yelled above the din. “I forgive you. Now dance.”

Through the Broken Looking Glass

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It isn’t an easy morning. I’m washing someone else’s dishes, angry at yet more news from the legislature. “I cannot keep trying to love these idiots,” I think to myself. I hate trying to love my enemies. They are many, and loving them is a terrible, horrible, sickening task. They do not deserve it. They deserve to be drawn and quartered, humiliated, silenced, tarred, feathered, squished like the ugly insects and reptiles that they are.

Why didn’t God nip Lucifer in the bud? Of what use are serpents? Tricksters? Mosquitoes? Isis fighters? Greedy, cruel, old white men? There’s something seriously wrong with a God who lets powerful strangers destroy the earth, force unwilling women to stay pregnant, torture fellow humans, kill other species (and each other) for sport, withhold basic shelter, food, and health care to those without resources. Resources. Fuck resources. Who owns anything? I think I’ve earned the things I own, but I don’t think about it for long because I might have to give it all away. To my enemies.

A soapy glass slips from my hands and hits the porcelain sink. I stare at the shards. Glass is a slow moving liquid, but at high enough temperatures, it flows visibly—a scalding stream of unbearable light. The gods made of glass are dangerous, but gods made of greed will eat you and your offspring and their offspring. So many voracious gods crunching through the bones. I am fixated on broken glass. The kitchen blurs.

“Am I invited to this party?” God says, appearing as a vial of nerve gas in the corner. I back away. “Could I have a hug?” God asks, from the mouths of leaders who amass wealth rather than serve. “Kiss me?” God slurs the words before passing out drunk on the floor.

I run to the stinking body and kiss the molten forehead. I empty the vial of nerve gas on my feet, bury my head in my hands, and pray ferociously for a bigger God or an easier way.

Outside, the complex trill of a meadowlark rises, an anthem of defiance. A declaration of independent joy–of pure seduction. I slide my body off the crowded altar, comb the familiar hairs on my head, and cake myself with thick, wet clay.

“Recognize me?” I whisper to the meadowlark who is God who is spring who is not long for this earth. “I’m under here, and I’m okay.”

I am of no use to the meadowlark, but she sings for me anyway. The clay bakes and cracks and falls away, toxins neutralized, abrasions healed. She sings as evening gathers force. The sparks from a burning cathedral light the sky. Reveal the truth. Illuminate the little moment I’ve lived in, with its soft walls and tiny peek-holes.

“I like what you’ve done with this place,” God says. “But you could use a few more windows.”

“I know,” I say. “But there’s a problem with structural integrity.” And I try to believe myself.

Snowbound

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Two feet of God fell through the night, pure white, yielding and silent–a worthy opponent, this friend of mine. “To what do I owe this honor?” I asked as I shoveled, and tried to mean it. “Nice of you to stop by,” I added, lying. No answer. I went back inside to stoke the fire and stare out the window.

A resolute sun broke through, brief and blinding. I could see nothing. Hear nothing. The tips of my toes and fingers felt nothing. This was the white of beguiling lies, seductive cover-ups. I was out of my depth, but it kept coming down. I’m ill-prepared, I thought. When you consider wind chill, even the burliest humans are easily frozen. The teeth of my cyberworld chattered. How do you love in this bitter cold? we asked each other, not actually wanting to know.

From the security of my couch, I contemplated the fields of deep, deadly white. For my people, black is the color of mourning–the color of absorption. But billions of people mourn in white–the color of reflection. White is what happens when light gathers force: blood red, sky blue, the yellow of fire and sun.

“That’s enough of that,” God said in a gruff, grandfatherly voice. “You’re trying too hard–too full of yourself. How about the red of that little wagon? The yellow of dog pee on snow?”

“But the situation is serious, God,” I said, embarrassed. “And I didn’t know you were listening. Could you knock, or at least make some noise before you barge into my head like that?”

God rolled himself into a single eyeball, a sheen of ice glazed over a deep, dangerous blue. He winked.

“Sorry,” he said. “I know it’s childish, but I love startling people. You thought I was out there, being weather, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “Or maybe not. You tell me, Mr. Know-It-All.”

An avalanche of laughter crashed against my dying world, my endangered species, bathing it in cold comfort, icing away the inflammation of ego and all things unsettled, unfiltered, and unattainable.

“Love can look like this,” God said, pointing at a single ember.

I knew the fire needed more wood, but I was reluctant. Winter isn’t over and the woodpile is precariously low.