State of the Union

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“I love scientists,” God said, sipping herbal tea, relaxed and open. “I just love them. They try so hard to understand, reveal, predict, and invent. Aren’t they something? Such visionaries.”

“Yeah,” I said. We sat for a while. Then I added. “You know, I’m somewhat of a scientist myself.

“Hmmm,” God said. “I don’t often think of you that way, but now that you mention it, I can see a little scientific mindedness in you. More artist, but sure, a little scientist.”

Well.

My eyebrows bent down, but I pushed them back up to the level of civil discourse. “I love scientists, too,” I said. “But doesn’t it bother you that you’re kept out of the equations so often?”

“What?” God said. “Are you nuts? I don’t have to be recognized to be present. In fact, I get a lot of exercise jogging around in equations and hypotheses. They’re great places to work out. Science-types are like moles, digging into creation. They examine air, stars, creatures deep in the sea. I love that burning desire to understand.” God paused, looking like a proud parent, and added, “I never dreamed they’d come up with the idea of splitting an atom! Wow. Just wow.”

I was aghast. “God!” I yelled, “You know what we’ve done with split atoms, right?”

God gave me that “duh” look and said, “Children take things apart, and sometimes, they can’t get them back together. It’s part of the long, long walk.” God’s voice faltered. I could tell I’d hit a sore spot, but I was unrepentant.

“It’s more than that,” I said, my voice deadly serious. “And you know it.”

God sighed. “Okay. True. Divide and conquer is a primitive strategy. Bringing things together is a more advanced skill than taking them apart.”

If I could’ve held it together, I would’ve given God a “duh” look back. But I lost it and slid into my usual slash and burn. I stomped back and forth on our concrete floor until I gave myself shin splints. I growled until my throat hurt. I punched the air. I kick-boxed with God. My heart rate moved past the aerobic range. I shouted, “We are tragically fractured, and we just keep fracturing further. Human trafficking, walls and greed, gutted landscapes, forced pregnancies, prolonged suffering at the end of life. War. Torture. Starvation. Nuclear waste. And you sit there, admiring scientists and spouting off about bringing things together?”

“Yes,” God said in a stubborn voice. She appeared to be unfazed. “Exactly.”

She sat down and took a sip of tea, trying to hide her tears. I hid mine, too. A long moment passed. Then, a cruel storm blew up, and fierce as a mother eagle, God flung her powerful, protective wings around the cosmos. My reach is maddeningly limited, but I tried to do the same.

Not My Idea

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“You realize America was not my idea, right?” God said. It was more a statement than a question—a comment likely brought on by my sense of alienation and dismay at our current national struggles.

“Duh,” I answered. “That’s painfully clear. I’m not blaming you.” I was washing the dishes with hot, soapy water. “It wasn’t my idea either,” I added.

The radio was on in the background, the ongoing absurdities in the news were ruining my evening. When you’re chatting with God, perspectives shift. The phrase “America First” is revealed for what it is: a puny, frightened declaration of selfishness that flaps defiant and pathetic in the gentle breath of God.

“You know we’re a defective species, right?” I said. I was in a very bad mood.

“Duh,” God answered. “That’s painfully clear.” God began drying the plates with little microbursts of warmth. “And I don’t blame you,” God added. “The blame game is a real dead end. Better to focus on hope.”

“Easy for you to say,” I said. “I got nothing.”

“Well, I think there’s a chance you’ll figure it out,” God said cheerfully. “You people divide yourselves up in the oddest ways. I admire your ingenuity, though it’s tragically misused. The us/them game is far more dangerous than the blame game. But…maybe, maybe. I don’t know. Maybe you’ll realize how damaging these artificial divisions are and stop scaring the pants off yourselves all the time.”

I thought about my fears and my meager progress at overcoming them.

“How’s your throat?” God asked. John and I had just spent six hours driving across the state in the smoke-infused cab of an old box truck we temporarily acquired as an act of charity. Or at least that’s what we think we did.

“Sore,” I answered. This was true. My head hurt and my clothes smelled atrocious.

“Kindness has a price tag,” God said. “Love is messy. Sometimes ugly. Sometimes deadly.”

I’d had enough. “God,” I said in the most patient voice I could muster. “I’m sorry, but I’m not in the mood for this. I’m tired. I feel sorry for myself. It’s cold in here, and I’m homesick for my younger self, when optimism was easier and endings weren’t so often or so clear.”

“I hear you,” God said. “I’m actually not in the mood either. I’m lonely and much older than you can even conjure. Very little agrees with me. Nothing tastes quite right. I’m often as miserable as you are. And for me, there’s no such thing as an ending. Maybe you should be grateful.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “But I’m not.”

We gave each other a halfhearted hug and parted ways–meaning I shut down while God expanded into the ink-black ocean of all that has ever been. I slept soundly in a threadbare hammock suspended between finality and the eternal. Not safe, but somehow, secure.

Up to you

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“Up to you,” God said. This is a lonely answer.

My hot bath had steamed the bathroom mirrors. I was brushing my teeth, contemplating all the irritating, confusing choices humans face. Which main dish to order, which shirt to buy, which route to take, which career to pursue, which allegiances to pledge, which weapons to use, which sacrifices to make, which people to love–how much to eat, when to arrive, when to leave, when to support, when to withhold, when to sing and when to scream–the choice of what to believe, who to trust. Even not choosing is choosing. There’s no way out.

“I know you have opinions,” I said. “Why can’t you be more open about them? Why can’t you be more helpful?”

God snorted.

“I take that to mean I’m supposed to know already,” I said. Like a tired professor, God wrote the words justice, mercy, and humility in the steam on the mirror. “Oh, sure,” I said. “Thanks, Mr. Subtle. I think you left out truth and compassion. Maybe I need a bigger mirror.”

I thought I was being funny. God didn’t laugh.

“You know,” I continued. “Lots of choices are made with no regard for you, one way or the other. You’re a pawn—a lousy excuse or nothing. You’ve tragically over-estimated our capacities. And now? What are you doing? We’re in so much trouble.”

God crossed his arms. Uncrossed his arms. Looked at me. His gaze was steady. I could see through his planetary eyes to the end of creation and back, the path swirling and surging with deceptively simple equations. He was everything. He was nothing. He was of a purity I could not comprehend. He opened his hands, and a thousand knives clattered to the floor. He was bleeding profusely.

“God!” I gasped. It looked like he might lose consciousness. I tried to cushion his fall. I shook him and said, “God. Hang on. Hang on, buddy. Do you hear me? Stay with me, God. Stay with me.”

I shouted for help. There was no one to call 911. There are no ambulances equipped to deal with a hemorrhaging universe and a broken-hearted God. The child at the border, dead. The old woman starving in Syria. The tender earth split open and gutted. God’s creatures eating plastic, God’s body bleeding out. God’s face in my hands.

“This is too hard,” I sobbed, filled with fear and self-pity. “You know it’s too hard.” I started to lay down beside him on the cold tile floor, to give up, to wait for the end in the waning warmth of a dying God. But he was gone.

I opened my inner eyes, still afraid, but the tiniest bit hopeful. Far, far away, I could see him walking with great deliberation in the garden. Small birds were closing his wounds, and color was returning to his cheeks. I knew I was invited. And I knew it was up to me.

 

Sweet Darkness

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For the past two nights, I’ve woken in the unknowable blackness of far past midnight and wrestled with the biochemical truths of the human propensity for bleakness. Who knows why these useless awakenings occur? True, I might be a little more stressed than usual. For the holidays, I’d planned on spending more time hanging around in the spiritual ozone, letting God know my soul was open for business, but instead, I bought a condo. An old one. December is an excellent time to do real estate and pull up disgusting carpet, especially in the higher elevations of the northern hemisphere, where ice and snow add to the romance of trips across town.

“Smart ass,” God says, at my elbow. “Trying to write fancy is no substitute for confession or compassion. And it is certainly no excuse for jilting me.”

“You’re nuts,” I say back, kind of glad God has shown up, if only for an argument. “This isn’t fancy writing, I’m not avoiding confession or compassion, and you are impossible to jilt anyway.”

God waits, patient and large. I wait, less patient, asserting my own puny largeness as best I can. We sit; me, trying to recover from a bad night’s sleep; God, well, who knows what she’s up to? She wraps herself in shadow and begins growing darker and darker. For a while, I watch the disappearing act, detached and calm, even though I realize a black hole is opening up in my living room—the gravitational pull is bending the light into itself and I am dissipating into my imperfections. The only source of light comes from faces around me, lit up with hatred. They glow from the heat of fear, greed, and a steely will to survive at all costs.

“Hold them,” God says, as she offers me a set of icy black hands. “Be gentle,” she adds. I cradle the first vicious face in my beautiful hands, wishing someone could see how incredibly compassionate I was being. The face spits at me. Embers of spit melt holes in whatever it is I am. I hold on, but eventually, my substance goes up in flames. I gag from the smell of singed flesh and the oily residue of false pride.

“That worked out well,” I gasp, as God reconstitutes my being.

“As well as can be expected,” God says. “Would you like to rest?”

I nod and surrender–weak, grateful, and fully known. God shakes the sky free of stars and I crawl down into the sweet, healing darkness where the fires of fear have all gone out, the glare of hatred has no reflecting surface, and fetid wounds inflicted by too much artificial light will be disinfected and stitched shut. This is the place warriors become lovers, where the cool, black hands of God hold the flushed face of the universe until everything dies peacefully into itself.

In my dream, I am young again. Peter, Paul, and Mary are singing. And I want to believe them. We all want to believe them.

 

Facial Hair

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God struggles with facial hair just like the rest of us. What does it mean if you don’t pluck your chin hairs? What about those Duck Dynasty-esq beards? What’s the message? And what about a little planet that fails to groom itself? Yes, it appears that earth groomed itself just fine before humans started asserting their appetites, but like it or not, we’ve clumsily joined the ecosystem and the globe now has a steady diet of bad hair days.

One thing I know about the face of God is that the bone structure is birdlike and fragile. It responds to the slightest breeze. And the eyes of God are often fringed with thick, curly lashes. When God blinks, entire galaxies lift and fly through the dark nothingness. On the face of God, unwanted, unmanaged facial hair presents a kind of danger the rest of us can only imagine. It disguises and insulates. It allows us to pretend we don’t know the truth.

This morning, an unshaven God has squeezed himself into one of our sage-colored easy chairs and is rubbing his bristly face, watching me type. “How about you clean this place up a little today?” God asks.

My fingers slow on the keyboard. “What’s the point?” I snap. I meant to sound belligerent, so the grief that wells up surprises me. I look down at my Ninja Turtle pajama bottoms. They’re too big, but I like them. I may wear them all day. My eyes roam around the room because I don’t want to look at God. A day has arrived and it will be spent and gone no matter what I do. The mundane and the horrific. Kindness and cruelty. Hunger and gluttony. Where to begin? Where to end?

Dust dances in the muscular sun streaming in my passive solar windows. God’s voice has the gravelly sound of a man holding back tears. “I know. I often feel the same way. I think it was a good idea to invent time, but sometimes, I’m not so sure. ”

In the distance, the wind is snapping the fabric of an American flag I attached to a fencepost near the highway. I took my signs down yesterday, but the flag stays. The redundancies of human existence often fool me into forgetting linearity. But linearity robs me of the moment. Another weary dialectic to grapple with. I glance at God’s face. His beard seems to have grown a half-inch since I last looked. His eyes are burning orbs, seething with something beyond hope. His fingers drum impatiently on his legs.

“I think I’ll go shave,” he says.

“Okay,” I say. “I guess I’ll get dressed.”

 

Wink

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In the lecture hall, down near the podium, I spotted God floating among the performers. I waved, and God winked–a massive slow wink that dimmed the lights and blew my head open. Time slowed to the pace of a heartbeat and then circled like the dancers, like the globe, like the unfamiliar sun. The Maori and Lakota, the Bashada, Samurai, Brahmins, Untouchables, Princes and Queens. Unsung women and disproportionate men.

After so much travel, so many miles, I was feeling alien. Insignificant.  But the wink changed all that. I fell into the inner vision of first home, the fiery cosmos, the place where the Creator serves breakfast and wipes his hands on a dirty apron, happy to watch us eat. The place where the tables are long and the memories longer. The place where we remember that once, we were protons and neutrons, innocent waifs, glowing translucent blue and delicate ivory. We weren’t afraid, cradled in such a vast vision; there was no reason, no excuse, no boundary. Just the womb of God, waves breaking, white noise.

And even now, billions of years later, we’re sand on the shore, dust underfoot, waiting for the wind to lift us. We’re so small we can hardly even see ourselves, hard at work, stubborn and vicious, achieving little—unaware that we are irritants on the perfect surface of God’s gaze.

“Not exactly,” God interjected. “Not irritants. Just reasons to wink. So many reasons to wink.”

“I know,” I admitted. “I said that because I irritate myself. And these people irritate me to no end.”

“Jet lag?” God asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “And pavement and single-paned windows. Traffic and tariffs and men who’ve forgotten who they are.”

“I’m sure you’d be happy to remind them, heh?” God sounded Canadian. He elbowed me in the side.

“You bet I would,” I said, arms crossed, starting to see the humor. “And I’m sure that’d be well-received, don’t you think? Most men love instruction from feisty old white women.”

God and I had a good laugh, though I admit I had the thought, “But who are they going to listen to?” As far as I know, God ignored this mental query. He gradually rejoined the warriors dancing in the inferno, weapons ready, drums beating, feathers rising like sparks.

So much, I don’t know. But this, I’ve recently discovered: At the edge of the lower world, the little brown birds will eat from your hand if you hold absolutely still and you offer something they recognize as food.

 

New Shoes

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This morning, on the Stillwater, smoke from both the fires of Canada and the fires of hell invade my body and soul with every shallow in-breath, and I endure the artist at work–yesterday’s ashes glazing the face of granite into something too terrible to touch, too beautiful to behold.

Not long ago, I began to pack for yet another autumn transition. I picked the last of the purslane-choked green beans, pulled the onions, undid the hoses, and with sickening ambivalence, bought poison to deal with mice. Traps or poison? I’m not a rodent, but I’d rather be poisoned than trapped. If we had a decent God, we wouldn’t have to use our crude, projected empathy to make these wrenching decisions. Maybe we’d even feed the mice and marvel at the prodigious quantities of seashell pink offspring. Or maybe in the spirit of the grand circle of life, we’d learn to eat said offspring. A delicacy. Except for their tiny spasmodic appendages, curled baby mice do bear a remarkable resemblance to shrimp. Wait. That wouldn’t solve the problem.

Eat or be eaten. Poison or be poisoned. By and large, the weeds won this year. And now, forests are being blazed out of existence, flood waters gorge on land, and lives are lost. I sit in unearned comfort, grimly examining the karmic consequences of nonaction, trying to goad my flesh into movement, my mind into comprehension. It feels useless. Why bother? Such is my mood today.

Yesterday was a different story. I had new running shoes, and there’d been rain. And God, I know you don’t like it when I imply you’ve engaged in miracles for my sake, but it seemed you’d reduced the gravity along the highway where my stride was effortless and I bounded along like a deer, legs spring-loaded, heart lifted and extraordinarily light.

“It was the shoes,” God says.

“I don’t believe you,” I say.

And God laughs. I can barely see the big, sharp teeth through the haze, but I can hear the riotous sound of a happy God.

“No, really,” I say in my loudest voice. “I don’t believe you.”

“I know,” God says. “Next time, run in old shoes with rocks in your pocket.”

“Fine,” I say. “That’s just what I’ll do.”

“And what will you prove, darling?” God asks, suddenly all innocent and interested.

“Nothing,” I shout. “I’ll prove nothing. There’s nothing mortals can prove. You shift the odds, change the playing field, turn down the volume, distort the light. We’re mice in an endless maze. Where are you, God? That’s what I want to know. Where are you?”

“Sheesh, oh ye of little vision. Calm down. You cannot look anywhere I’m not. I’m the maze and the fire, the weeds and the water, the new shoes and the rocks. And by the way, you got a good deal on those Sauconys, but I liked the yellow Asics pretty well too.”