From Whence We Came

Almost every day, God and I sit in a ratty blue recliner angled toward the window and sip beer. God expects me to hold still and listen. I try, but it seems nonsensical—an inefficient and unreasonable request.

Then I remind myself that efficiency isn’t the only road to success and not everything worthwhile is reasonable. The ability to reason is one ingredient in the soup that defines us, but it’s not the entire recipe. There’s sausage, kale, and wonderment. There’s an extravagance in creation that can’t be explained. Abstract thought and scientific inquiry may be the pinnacles of evolution, but pinnacles need foundations. Humans rationalize cruelty as readily as they eat that second donut.

“Working on some interesting similes and metaphors this morning, aren’t we?” God teases, sliding from chair to mirror to window to bird, sashaying to music I can barely hear.

“I’m thinking about foibles and do-overs,” I answer, happy that God seems loose and crazy today. “Could I have the last ten minutes back? I went down the wrong rabbit hole.”

“Nope,” God says. “Why do you even bother to ask? You know better.”

“No, I don’t,” I say, gleeful and untethered. “YOU know better.”

God winks and pulls me out of the chair. We do a four-pig jig creaking around the room in old bodies. We dance straight through the newly purple wall and fall, barriers breaking like bones.

I am blissfully unaware of dinosaurs, dodos, and all the hapless creatures currently facing extinction before they even have a name. They can all be Adam. They can all be Eve. I love them fiercely, but I can’t save them. I can’t even save myself (and truthfully, I don’t want to).

God’s reading glasses fly off while we’re cavorting. They shatter against the edge of a light green piece of granite I keep nearby for thermal mass, and small pieces fly everywhere. But no worries. The dangerous shards gather themselves into a coarse form of collective compassion, willing to return to the fire from whence they came. The fire from whence we all came. The fire to which we will all return.

“Sorry about your glasses,” I say. “I could read to you until they’re fixed if you’d like.”

“I’d like that very much,” God says.

“Do you mind if I start in the middle?” I ask. “I’ve already read the first chapters.”

“Not at all,” God says. “I suspect I know the plot.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” I say, oddly defensive. “But the descriptions are spectacular. And the details matter.”

“Yes, they do,” God agrees. “They really do.”

Aftermath

God flaps long black wings and lands gracefully on a large pile of debris while I gaze at what was once a fence but is now a line of uprooted bushes, broken promises, sticks, and mud. I wave. God takes human shape and waves back. A wide-brimmed hat shades her eyes from an ambitious morning sun. The FEMA people have come and gone.

We are creatures of the seasons, drawn along by the unstoppable orbit of earth and the long and short of things out of our control. We’ve learned to adapt. Even the meanest among us is glad for a cold drink on a hot day. Even the bravest does not welcome frostbite. When a season runs amok, and our shelters collapse, burn, or float away, we stand stripped of familiar, protective layers. Our dreaded smallness is revealed.

Both “aftermath” and “seasons” have etymological roots in agriculture. Knowing when to plant and knowing there will be a smaller, second crop available after harvest–these are as essential to survival as breathing—though not as automatic. I survey the aftermath of this season so far. It has severely eroded riverbanks, civility, and the pillars of our democracy.

I settle beside God. We say nothing. Not long ago, the flat surface we’re sitting on was a bridge plank from somewhere upstream. Now it’s woven into what the river has lifted, tossed, and left behind. It will not be a bridge again. I do not know which bridges will hold. I’m tired and afraid. God takes my hand, and we walk to the garden where seeds are belatedly sprouting. I am astonished to see the Lower Salmon River squash seeds I saved from last year making a go of it. I was sure they were rotten, infertile, or dead.

“Never say never,” God whispers, gently touching the sprouts.

“Never say always,” I counter. “I’m not sure what’s next, but it won’t be the same river, ever again.”

“Nothing is ever the same river,” God says.

I give God an ironic look and push my hand through her ephemeral chest. On the other side, there’s a new season as yet unnamed. At some point, I will call it home, but even so, it will be temporary.

God leans down, pulls a weed, and squints up at my wavering being. “There is no final resting place,” she says. “But the painted ponies love having riders like you.” She hands me a golden coin. I hand it back. She laughs, swallows the coin, and flies away. I have flotsam and jetsam to clear, wells to cleanse, and fires to build. So many fires to build.

The Constant is Change

“A kennel is different than a fenced yard,” I explained to God last evening as we problem-solved the nature of limits, dogs, and human frailties. Dogs naturally dig, bark, jump, protect, chase, growl, and express exuberant affection. This presents problems to the elderly, newly planted marigolds, and other tender things. God seems to think containment should include flow.

“I know the difference,” God said with a twinge of disdain. “But I want to be able to open the door and be done with it. I like things simple.”

What a lie! I risked looking straight at God who then splintered into a hungry blackbird, a broken bike, unearthed seedlings, an abandoned fawn, an icy river, and hops vines using last year’s growth to climb heavenward. A teaspoon of topsoil, a glance at sky–this is all the evidence anyone needs; God does not like things simple.

“Fine. So we’re not that simple,” God admitted, fading into the late-blooming lilacs. I filled the bird feeder, replanted snapdragons, marigolds, and basil, and imagined how I could upcycle the bike. It has a kickstand. That gave me hope. Even though the river is high and noisy, I slept well.

But an intrusive idea about yet another way to rearrange the living room occurred to me this morning, and a Paul Simon tune is on replay in my head. The bike is still broken and I need to build a fence. I’m trying to focus, but distractions take root like invasive weeds—they have no natural enemies. Possibilities plague me. What should I transform next?

The angelic face of change is often made of plastic and other petroleum products designed to enslave and deplete. And yet…

Change is what we are made of.

What would we do without rust and mildew, the molding peach, the dry rot spreading through brick and mortar? Should we bow down to the power of deterioration and thank the gods of decline? I think not, but I suspect it’s all the same to the Many-Sided God; unlike me, they are free and untethered.

“Ah, but you are free to choose your tethers.” God intrudes midsentence–appearing as punctuation and grammar, a parenthetical phrase gone rogue, coauthoring away, as unbidden as Paul Simon, as pernicious as bindweed. And as dangerous as an unruly dog who is way too happy to see me.

“Get down!” I yell. This is not an ideal way to interact with God, but I have no treats or tennis balls to throw, so I drop to my knees where it’s safer and tell myself it’s not a bad thing to be adored.

Transparencies

There are days when dinosaurs, cockroaches, and head lice provide me with a certain comfort. The deliberate ignorances and cruel choices of our species are hardly inspiring, but when I consider the magnificence of survival and the wonders of extinction over the inconceivable span of years these creatures represent, I relax. We can all relax.

Consider the lesson of the glass winged butterfly (Greta Oto). Freed of human tunnel vision, we can ride the tails of invisibility and let our perspectives shrink and swell. Trippy. Who needs externally induced altered states when you can consider the history of our planet and become completely disoriented, bodily displaced? As one researcher noted, being transparent makes for great camouflage. There’s no point in hiding cumbersome errors, glaring false starts, or neon selfish longings. Why not own up to our foibles, strip down to essence, and have a good laugh at ourselves as we give up or start over? In a cosmic, tragic sort of way, we are hilarious. This may be the sole reason humans have consciousness; we can laugh. God likes to laugh.

Or maybe, it’s terror. We inflict terror on each other, and when we do, we often reach out of our bodies to see if anyone is there to help. We come apart so easily because we’re afraid of being nothing, but here’s the funny part: We are everything; the thorn and the rose.

Across the meadow, the Artist is painting roses with blood—your blood, the neighbor’s blood, God’s blood, the soldier’s blood.

“Please,” I whisper to the Artist. “No more roses.”

The Artist pauses, hands me a brush, and with a smile that brings tears to my eyes, says, “Paint what you will.”

“No, I’m not that kind of artist,” I protest, holding the dripping brush away from myself. But I see that the blood is holy, and I relent. I paint myself red. I paint the Artist red. It occurs to me we are the embodied Scarlet Letter, marked as shameful, marked as chosen, marked as doomed, marked as loved.

These absurd contradictions make God laugh. I laugh. The Artist laughs. The dinosaurs laugh. Lice and lichen, seconds and centuries, grief and gladness, daylight and starlight, the endless longing for justice, mercy, and release. In my humbled alteredness, I understand there is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend and sadly, there’s no greater delusion than to think you can preserve your life or anything you love anyway.

“Well said,” the Artist comments gently, combing through my hair with a fine-toothed comb, checking for lice. “I have nothing to add.” I know that’s not exactly true, but I let it go for now.

Shoulder Rub

Big History Project

“Why do you bother with me anyway?” God asked, petulant. It was still dark, but I could see the hazy outline of his dejected posture. He sounded depressed and antagonistic. Oh, great, I thought. One of those moods.

“Do I have a choice?” I mumbled from my twisted blankets. I didn’t want to play this game. The answers never change. I bother with God because God bothers me, and dealing with the plague of God is my way of chopping a path through the underbrush of life.

People who believe in some form of a creator tend to give thanks for the good things or ask for favors. They bank on God’s better side, fawning over him with praise, thanksgiving, or strange offerings that range from doves to virgins. Some twirl, some tithe. Some pray constantly, some five times a day. Some use ancient supplications, others improvise. I assume they think this will please or appease. Perhaps they imagine they can influence The Entity to send rain, heal a loved one, or save us from making the planet uninhabitable. I guess it’s worth a shot. But I’ve grown more and more familiar with the underbelly of God–the tender, desperate Alpha, the grief-stricken Omega, the wily Wonderment, the inexplicable Everlasting–and I’m not so sure.

I held perfectly still under the covers, waiting for God to intrude into my head with a comment or retort, but for once, God didn’t seem to be tuned in. He was folded, self-absorbed. This did not bode well for the hours of light and toil ahead of us. Was God going to sulk all day, slimy and bleak like pond mud? Would he harden by evening, cracking in the heat of a merciless sun? And when night falls, will he leave this planet, once and for all, tired of the ignorance and blame?

I sat up. “Come here,” I said. “You know a lot of us are sorry, don’t you?” My eyes were open and steady. I motioned for him to sit on the floor beside the bed. He looked suspicious but complied, and I began rubbing his shoulders. My hands tingled as they sank down into the trapezius muscles of a tense God. I kneaded the flesh like I knead bread, my fingers probing the sore spots, my palm pressing down into the transient tangibility; a form of prayer. Easy, without words.

The body of God relaxed and bravely gave way, softening into malleable clay. I let my hands rest on the uneven, brooding surface of dawn. Billions of years stood by, talking among themselves, just loud enough to remind me that there was work to do. Today. This day.

“Let’s get a move on Sweetheart,” I said to God, giving the shoulders one last squeeze.

God shrugged, stood, and straightened himself to his full height. “Fine,” he said. “You’re the boss.”

Did We Begin on the Seventh Day, When God Dozed Off?

God’s creative management style is not one I’d recommend for small or even large businesses. And I am not saying that behind her back; she’s sitting right here, watching me examine the dust on the mirror. I like mirrors, but they get very dusty. She listens with rapt attention as I mutter about hatred and cruelty and offer critical analysis of her most irritating creatures. The marvel and madness of God is that she is patient, permissive, and absolute. She cares little about insults, greatly about suffering, and allows all things and beings to spin on their wobbly, narcissistic axes until they’ve spun themselves out.

I offer her the keyboard. She refuses. I offer her the day. She laughs.

 “Nah,” she says. “I have so many days I don’t know what to do with them all. And anyway, the day you’re offering is already mine.” This is true, but also it isn’t. I blow on the mirror and watch a few particles of dust shift around. She looks on, hands folded in her enviable lap–a lap that is a cave, a womb–a lap that’s a luxury apartment in Manhattan, a well-built hut in the Congo, the cab of a semi with an alert and friendly driver capable of backing up without a second thought.

“And she’s off,” God says, making fun of my fantasies. This time, I laugh, delighted at the twinkle in God’s eye.

“Laps are great, aren’t they?” I say. “My friend had a dream that she had a horse on her lap. Imagine that.” God already knows this dream, but we enjoy the story anyway.

Once in a long while, when God’s in a tough place, I hold her on my lap and let her be small, but I’ve never held a full-grown horse.

“It’s always what you can handle,” God says. “Until you can’t.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Dreams are some other language. Flying dreams are the best, but mostly, I fall off ledges, try to save helpless children, and find hidden rooms in buildings I’m remodeling.”

“I know,” God says. “It’s confusing.”

I consider that for minute and then ask, “Well, why don’t you let people dream what they want to dream?”

“Oh, I do,” God says. “I absolutely do.” I look skeptical but say nothing. The inner, the outer; the brain, the mind. At the heart of the great mystery, is it simply random synaptic firings? Did God invent evolution for fun? Did we begin on the seventh day, when God dozed off? Are we the dream? The particles of dust on my mirror? The coming and going of migratory birds?

“Yes!” God says. And the twinkle in her eye explodes into blinding light. I fumble my way to that lap where I know I am being dreamed and settle in, migratory and alert.

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.

Pecking Order

There are fourteen tiny chicks in a box at my feet, hopping around, testing their wings, eating, drinking, pooping, napping, and then starting the sequence over again. They are utterly defenseless, so small they’d not even make a good hors d’oeuvre for a predator, but they don’t seem to know this. When I reach down to get one, they chirp in vociferous protest and scramble away as if escape were possible. Think of the energy they’d save if they just laid down and accepted whatever came their way–warmth, light, food, clean water, a snuggle with a human–or a quick end to a short life. Instead, they react to perceived threat with every fiber of their fuzzy little beings. It’s both comical and profound.

Chickens do not seem to engage in self-reflection. Among their favorite treats are chicken eggs and chicken meat. Their opportunistic cannibalism doesn’t appear to trigger any crises of conscience, and it doesn’t bother me either. They’re cute, and I’m pretty sure they like me. After capture, they relax in my warm hands, and some drift off to sleep. I can’t be sure, but it looks like blissful surrender.

“Well, it’s not,” God says, as she joins me, latte in hand.

“Where’d you get that?” I ask. I have my beer, but the latte looks good.

She flashes the telltale Starbucks logo and nods at the chicks. “They’re playing dead. It’s a last resort.”

“They are not,” I say.

God leans back. “Chickens are one of my prototypes,” she says. “But there are some design flaws. They have pecking orders and will literally kill and eat the hen at the bottom, especially if she’s an outsider. I’m not proud of how this has turned out so far.”

When God says things like that, it triggers my reactivity. “Yeah. And what’s the plan exactly? If the lion lies down with the lamb, what will the lion eat? Grass?”

God scoops up one of the black chicks and makes cooing sounds. Exasperated, I continue. “And if chickens kill the weakest member, doesn’t that make the flock stronger? And why would people born with a penis want a vagina? And if you have the chance to enslave someone for free labor, why not? Isn’t this why you gave us women, guns, and germs?”

God puts the chick back among the others, sips the last of her latte, and folds her hands. I slither to the floor. My plan is to play dead when God picks me up. But God just sits there, smiling and waiting. I look with longing at her soft, giant hands.

“Won’t work,” she says. “You’re too old to play dead.” She helps me change the water while the chicks chirp frenetically. “They’re so darn adorable,” she says.

“And versatile,” I say sarcastically, still wishing for an easier way, a less disturbing set of truths.

“And versatile,” God says, in a calm, dark voice. “Versatile.”

The Pockmarked Rock

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Sometimes God looks at me with big soulful eyes that say “I know what you know and I know that you know I know so why bother to hide?” And I say, “You know why.” And God nods. And I say, “Why do you bother?” And God says, “With what?” And I say, “With pockmarked rocks, knots in wood, burned out doctors, and the achingly slow evolution of the human spirit.”

There are tons of rocks in our house. Found, acquired, given. A few approach perfection, worn so smooth it would be hard to imagine anything smoother or rounder. Most have their reasons, but some are a mystery. How did this ugly, misshapen rock make its way into the collection? It is irredeemably ordinary, commonplace, without any distinction other than the irregularities it has not overcome. I don’t like this rock. I want to take it to the river and throw it in, but I can’t. Once a rock crosses the threshold it is beyond me to push it back out.

Without another word, God wraps strong fingers around the pockmarked rock, and it begins to glow and shimmer. Then it melts, and the demons escape, screaming into the haze. They form an astonishing acapella chorus, their screams subside into a river song, and the rock wants them back. God laughs.

“See, little one?” God says. “You already knew that story. It’s a grand one, isn’t it? One of my favorite plots.”

“You mean the inextricability of imperfection and perfection?” I ask. “Or are you just reminding me how ordinary I am?”

God takes my face into her hands, her palms under my jaw, those same strong fingers winding up the sides of my skull.

“Don’t bother,” I say. “The demons will just come back.”

“Yes,” God says. “But they always come back singing.”

I nod.

Male Enhancement Products

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God and I were driving across town. Traffic slowed in front of the adult fantasy shop, and we noticed a young woman with a pink and black backpack pushing the buzzer so she could go in. Maybe she worked there. Maybe she was on her way to buy a morning orgasm. Who knows? The neon sign scrolled through various messages. One informed us that male enhancement products were on sale. I winked at God and said “Shall I pull over?”

God followed my gaze, read the sign, glanced down at his godly crotch, and started giggling. It was a golden moment. We laughed until tears were running down our faces and I was in danger of wetting my pants. “Oh, man, I needed that,” God said.

“Me, too,” I said. Earlier we’d both been sickened by the news that various “faith” systems had decided to ratchet up their wars on women and those with various sexual identities.

“It sure is easy for your species to hate,” God said. “Pick on the little ones, the different ones. Force women to carry embryos into full baby bodies and give births they don’t want to give. Define those differences as wrong. Declare who’s going to hell.”

“Yeah, I know, God. I know. And even worse, they think they’re doing your work for you.” I paused and added, “Well, at least some of them do.”

“Do they?” God said, shaking his head. “How in the world do they get that idea?”

“Didn’t you program us to reproduce at all costs? So a gay person is defying the plan, right? And a woman who doesn’t want to carry a fertilized egg to full term…she’s not fulfilling her role either. Right? Isn’t it handy how the will of God aligns politically with those seeking domination?” My voice was surly.

“Sarcasm is not going to solve this, sweetie,” God said. Our happy mood was dissipating. God stared out the window as I timed the next green light. Suddenly, God slapped the dashboard. I looked over, startled. His face was a mixture of dark and darker.

“Male enhancement products,” he muttered.

He was rubbing his forehead like a man deep in grief. The pain was palpable.

“What, God?” I said gently. “What’s going on?”

“That’s what’s obliterating…that’s what’s powering this tidal wave of hatred and destruction.”

“What?” I said, not quite following

“Weapons,” God said. “What are they? Male enhancement products. Laws controlling women’s bodies? Male enhancement products. Harsh judgments directed at anyone who’s not heterosexual? Male enhancement products.” God’s voice was grim and firm. “Pull over. I have to go.”

As I searched for a safe place to stop, God melted, and the minute the wheels stopped turning, God poured himself under the car door and became women. Old women, young women, ugly women, bent and hungry, raped, beaten, forsaken, controlled, lied to, shamed, and tricked. Women. I rolled down my window and surveyed the landscape. The crowd swelled as the gays and lesbians, the trans and non-binaries materialized. So defiant. So brave. So fragile. So God.

“God!!” I yelled. “Get back in the car. Stop being those people. You’re going to get hurt.”

“I know, honey,” the Crowd of God roared. “That’s how this works.”