Plagues, Pestilence, Fire, and Greed

Image credit: Aljazeera

It is terribly tempting to detach from the news. But I can’t. Protests, fires, floods, torture, gun accumulations, fascists, pandemics, stupidity, war, rape, riots, starvation—these are where the weakest live and die, where misery is chronic, where God makes her home—on the precipice of annihilation.

“I have to let them suffer,” God says as she darkens the room. “There is no other way to show you your failings. No other way to challenge you forward. But I die with them. Every single mangled body. Every single last breath. Each rotten, contorted act of injustice. I’m right there.”

“Yeah?” I say, feeling nauseated and furious. “Yeah? And are you there with the bomber? The shooter? The choke-holder? The fire-starter? The pompous politicians? The filthy rich?”

“Honey, you know I am,” God says in an imploring voice. “I know you’re angry, but you know I am.” And God’s right. I do know. That’s why I pray and swear my way through the sickening news. But it makes me crazy.

If God fully materialized, I’d punch her lights out. I’d go down swinging. If her ears were visible, I’d give her an earful. I’d look her straight in the eye and tell her she’s a failure. I might even reach for her heart, intending to pull it out and examine it with my angular fingers and ever-diminishing vision. But luckily for both of us, she’s staying safely out of reach.

“Honey, I’ve forgiven you,” she says. “And the polite thing to do would be to forgive me back.”

Forgive God for this lousy short existence? For the nightly exposure to the sufferings she could end? Forgive God for what’s happened to people enslaved, burned alive? Women abused? Children starved or beaten to death? Forgive God for the explosive human ego and the fanatical fears that are wiping us out?

“Forgiveness is an act of faith,” God says.

“Stop it,” I say to God. “You’re God. You can do whatever you damn well want.”

“I know that,” God says. “I’m fire and water. I’m beauty, compassion, blood, and guts. I’m beyond and under, alongside and within. And you need to try a little harder. You have to forgive yourself. And me. And carry on. You need to believe against the odds it will come out okay.”

“I can’t,” I say. “It won’t.

“You can,” God says. “It will.”

“I won’t,” I say.

“You will,” God says. “Like I said, forgiveness is an act of faith. And I believe in you.”

Insult to Injury

I often make lists of the many sins committed against me. Acts of omission or malice, blows landed, insults slung. It’s like anticomfort food. And to add to my misery, ailments regularly drape and infest my body. Some days, I hope for a temporary ceasefire between invading forces. Other days, all is lost.

“Despair is nothing new to the human condition,” God says. “But then, neither is joy.”

“Oh, you are so subtle, God.” I said with a snarl, thinking God was trying to cheer me up.

“I’m hungry,” God said. “Will you give me a scrap of food?” This was not what I’d expected, and I’d already put the breakfast things away. I ignored the request.

“I’m frightened,” God said. “I’m lonely. I’m in prison.” God looked misshapen. I backed away. He seemed deranged and dangerous.

“My village flooded. I have nothing left,” God said. I checked the locks on my doors and the passwords on my accounts.

“I’m so tired,” God said. “I walked all night.” I shook my head. God was filthy, and I’d just changed the sheets.

“My legs have been broken,” God said. “I can’t walk.” He tried to drag himself toward me, arm over arm. I turned my back and ran until I fell exhausted on rocky ground. God coalesced in the stratosphere, floated down like a feather, and circled his body around mine. My face burned with shame. “I can’t,” I said through clenched teeth and tried to kick him away. “I can’t fix you. Can’t fix all the broken places. Can’t stop coming apart. What do you want from me?”

“Oh baby,” God murmured as he rocked my resistant body. “I want joy…and maybe a bit of compassion now and then. The kind that gratitude generates. But mostly, joy.”

This seemed reasonable, but I couldn’t fend off the fog of helplessness thickening around me. It was blinding and cold. I thought this nicer, softer God would obliterate it for me, but instead, he looked worried. “Throw it off!” he said, with some urgency. “Throw it off now. Think. Where’d you hide that last bit of joy?”

“In the paint brushes,” I said, sitting up. “And that incredibly twisted driftwood. And the words. And that kiss.”

“Go,” God said. “Paint, wander, write, kiss. And be sure to light the fire. I’ve dried the kindling for you.” He pulled small sticks from under his robe.

Suddenly, more than anything, I needed to paint something purple. And gold. And forest green. But the world had grown too dark to see very well. I remembered a line from Frederick Douglass’s famous speech (What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?) It’s not light that we need, but fire. Artificial illumination would not do. I could only paint a true and joyous thing by enduring the flickering glow of fire. I took the kindling gratefully and kissed the Pathetic Old Thing on his wrinkled cheek as we turned ourselves toward the gathering storm.

Those Little Brown Birds

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Something scares the little brown birds feasting on the front lawn, and most of them fly to the fence, using precious energy for no cause. This time, there’s no predator, only wind. A few of the dull ones stay behind, calmly pecking at the dirt. Those clad in coats of many colors are male and skittish. They drop back to the dirt, shiny and chagrinned.

But now the orange cat slinks by. All the little birds disperse; this time with good cause. They land on the wires, tailfeathers twitching, reminding me of the ragged and precarious ways I cling to life. Like dry grass in the fall, my longings could be braided into baskets or burned away like chaff.

There’s a shallow ravine I’ve known since I wandered the land as a child. I liked hiding there, lying on my back, sheltered from the winter wind. The long dream will continue in this small and private canyon because there’s so much sky. Sandstone gives way here and there to reveal outcroppings of flint and jasper, agate and granite. Someday, I will feed the wilder animals and join the great upheavals and slow erosions of creation.

For now, my dreams are short and dim. God reaches into them occasionally, and I chase him out with a broom, my hair covered in a kerchief, my voice low and menacing. But God crouches even lower, his tail snaps back and forth, his fangs perfectly white and bared. His amber eyes burn with a question, “Are you sure? Are you sure?”

And I admit I’m not. Not sure. Not solid. Frightened by wind and fire. The long-awaited greening seems as far away as justice. I did not waste my youth, but it has not come with me. Some days, I’m too tired to fly to the fence. How long can I hold these things at bay? God goes belly-up at my feet, the pads of his magnificent paws soft and tender. I see the spot that makes him limp and bandage it with my shirt. He thanks me. We rest.

Warm Heart

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It is evening. Snowy. The vicious ways of humanity have crawled up on the couch beside me, surrounded me, touched me, and laughed. I see them loading their guns. I offer to eat the bullets. They laugh.

It is the end of a day, an era, minutes strung together with a thin cord falling through the ice. Going under and away. God is the Titanic and the iceberg. I want to refuse the cold comfort, but I can’t.

This is not of my own doing. It is a gift of God.

I warm my hands over my own chest, tuck them under my own arms. I open my mouth to admit my fear but what comes out is anger. This, I quickly see, is what has warmed my heart. What to do with this fire? It is hypnotic to the eye. Searing to the touch.

Recently, I read a book about World War II and said to myself, “Those horrors were only 80 years ago.” I am lured by the distorted consolation of disbelief. My soul entertains the idea of a stealthy migration to meaninglessness; the reabsorption of my face into the masses.

But long ago, in a desperately poor institution, I saw a naked boy caged in a window, his pink-tipped penis, long and limp, his muddy eyes slow-moving and opaque, arms draped through the ornate bars, fingers exploring, imploring anyone to hold his hand. Anyone.

These decades later, I wonder where he is. Did the cage fly open? Did his penis grow erect? Did anyone ever hold his hand, and if they did, did they survive, or did he pull them down into the half-life of that underworld?

He would be a man now. He would not remember my face if he happens to be alive, but I think he’s not. Such poverty sucks the marrow from the bones of the children. I have grieved this child my entire life, and I doubt that even death will change that. He is a part of what I know.

This is not of my own doing. It is a gift of God.

When the Fat Lady Sings

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For the 17th time, we’re remodeling our interior space(s) with upcycled materials that require varying levels of tolerance and creativity. In this, as in all things in my life, God worms his way in and turns whatever I’m doing into a parable. It’s all about him. Some might find this reassuring. I don’t. Here’s what I know: In contrast to me, the Contractor-in-Chief always obtains the correct permits to begin remodeling. Then he rolls up his sleeves and works like the devil to upcycle your innards. Seventeen times is nothing to him. It’s a rolling remodel–a lifetime composting project. And here’s something ugly: In your innermost being, there’s asbestos, black mold, dry rot, and highly combustible chemical substances that must be properly stored but often are not.

Fire happens frequently. Like many in my species, I start little blazes that if left unchecked would burn the entire project to the ground. God’s a skilled firefighter, but sometimes he decides to call in the whole damn volunteer fire department. It’s embarrassing. After the flames subside, platitudes and excuses abound. The crowd is pleased, hell freezes over, and I skate away on ice I know to be very, very thin. The cows start for home, and the Fat Lady warms up in the wings, octaves surging like a dangerous river. There’s no doubt she will sing. She’s the most voluptuous incarnation God ever assumes. Such lungs. That dark cleavage rising, those magnificent breasts; objects of desire and dread. This is where we’ll all find ourselves eventually; in the arms of the Fat Lady smothered in love; upcycled beyond recognition. Transformed.

“And in the meantime?” I wonder to myself. God smiles, soot clinging to his mustache, circling his nostrils. He tosses me a hard hat, a yellow suit, and a big, cherry red fire extinguisher. “Keep trying,” he says. “You’ll improve over time.”

“Why?” I moan. Doubt lines my face. “Even if I get good–really, really good–it won’t be enough.” God remains silent, eyes generating their own searing light. “And I might get burned trying,” I add, feeling sorry for myself. Who really wants the eyes of God focused on them?

“Of course you will,” God says, his voice kind but firm. “But what’s a little scorch here and there?” He waves a crusty hand out the window of his firetruck, slips into the turn lane, and disappears.

 

 

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.

Hoarding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Landing

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

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

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

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

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

Not Fair

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My brother loaned me his rototiller and I haven’t returned it. He says he’ll come get it if he needs it. I say well, that’s not really fair. He says whoever said life was fair? I mutter something like well, at least I should try to make it more fair. He just smiles.

“Hey, God,” I yell, after my brother drives away. “Whoever said life was fair?”

“Not I,” says God. “I’m not in charge of that idea. In fact, it’s a childish notion I hope you’ll outgrow someday. Who gets more candy? Who sleeps on the top bunk? This is okay when you’re seven. Tiresome behavior for adults.”

It began to rain. It rained on the river and on the cracked, thirsty garden. It rained on the pavement and on a spring wedding somewhere. The wind picked up and blew so hard I gasped for breath. It blew down a tree, it blew waves in the water, it blew away the simplistic demands we make of our shrink-wrapped God. The rain came sideways and the real God shimmered, at ease in the liquid uncertainty we think of as life.

I started a fire. God shook like a dog and joined me. My fate in the hands of rain. My days in the arms of wind. This chills me to the bone. I rub my stiff hands and sip tea.

“Justice is different than fairness,” God says. “You know that eye for an eye thing?”

I nod, wary.

God continues, patient. “That’s the upward limit. No more than an eye for an eye. But less is better. In fact, I favor forgiveness and compassion. Your species is more likely to survive that way.”

“Duh,” I snap at God. “Justice. Mercy. Compassion. Humility. I get it.” I pause and calm myself. “But I don’t think it’s fair you aren’t helping us more.” I smile. God smiles. It’s good we have these little chats.

My twinkly-eyed friend with his infectious laugh will soon be dead from the cancer he’s carried for decades. I can eat a second or third salted caramel while I write this. When I turn on the news, likely I’ll see a child bloated with hunger, floating on a crowded raft. I won’t gag. Maybe I should. God, should I gag?

The rain pounds down and the river’s rising. No answer. No answer at all.