Guidance for the Chronically Critical

I hail from a long line of judgmental souls who sometimes wish they were kinder than they are (or were). I know this both as judged and judger. And I wrestle mightily with each.

“Me, too,” God chimes in with a gentle punch to my shoulder. It’s hot today. We’re enjoying the living room, cooled by the thick cement floor and sizable rocks absorbing the ambient heat. This makes me happy and severely judgmental of anyone who thoughtlessly builds shelter without passive solar features. Cooling and heating with fossil fuels provides easy comfort while hastening our extinction. I’m also mean to people who forget to turn off the lights, use too much toilet paper, do laundry with hot water, or leave their engines running for more than 30 seconds.

“Judging is a trap,” God says. “A sure way to slide into the lake of sticky, jealous, self-centered misery.”

“But you’re like the Judger-in-Chief. How do you avoid the lake of sticky, jealous, self-centered misery?”

“Oh, I don’t. I slide right in. There’s always someone swimming around in that cesspool of righteousness. I usually bring lifejackets and a ladder.”

“And?” I ask. I imagine God offering flotation devises to weary people dogpaddling around in the soup of their own harsh judgments.

“Usually, no takers. But occasionally someone sheds those weighty layers of pride, takes my hand, and asks for a towel.” God smiles. “I like it so much when that happens.”

“But they got there because they correctly assessed that others are stupid, hateful, selfish, or inferior, right?”

 I smile a wonky smile. I know my judgments aren’t always accurate or loving. Furthermore, judgments leveled at me fail to consider how hard I’m trying. And finally, people foolishly judge God, or impose cruel judgements in the name of God, causing injury rather than healing. “So, what’s there to do?” I add.

“Forgive, forgive, forgive,” God says. “Forgive.”

“I knew you were going to say that.” I shake my head. “But sometimes, I don’t want to, or I don’t know how.”

“Work on it,” God says. “Take your soul to a car wash. Eat some of your choice words for dessert. Refocus on justice, not revenge. Give with a smile; don’t take with a snarl. Say thank you. Life’s neither easy nor fair, and that can be incredibly sad, so once in a while, curl up and cry it out.”

God lays down and curls tight to demonstrate. I’m afraid the tears are going to begin so I hop off the couch and try to tickle God’s underarms. The last thing I need today is a weeping God.

“Gottcha!” God yells, grabs my arm, and pulls me down to tickle back. We roll around like bear cubs, nipping, laughing, trying to pin each other.

“It’s okay to bite a little,” God says. “But don’t break the skin.”

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow

The very greenly greens out my window should be making me happy. The realization that I cannot save the world should be a relief. The ways I am rich should bring me joy: my art supplies and new welder; a soulmate, nice neighbors, kindred spirits; drawers full of chocolate; the asparagus, birds, and well-gravelled roads. But no. I’m not happy. Not relieved. Not filled with joy. I’m surprised God even wants to share my peanut butter milk dark stout. But here she is, swirling the frothy brown around like a connoisseur.

“Sweet and musty,” she says, with an exaggerated French accent. “With une légère saveur de dirt.”

“Stop it,” I say. “You’re not funny. I’m in a very bad mood.”

“Really?” God asks. “Who would’ve guessed?”

I ignore the sarcasm. “The thing is, God, I’m not sure what I want anymore. I thought it was a blue couch and a book club. Silk pajamas. Clarity about what to give away and how to die. But the days roll on … tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace…”

“And here you are, strutting and fretting your hour on stage,” God interrupts, picking up on that profound riff Shakespeare wrote for his character, Macbeth, four centuries ago.

“Not strutting,” I protest. “But yeah, maybe fretting.”

God grins. “My favorite definition of fretting is to gnaw with teeth in the manner of a rodent.”

I don’t want to smile, but who can resist that image? God and I clink our glasses together and she says, “When you die, you’re gone. But what you did with your life stays. It’s fine if you leave some teeth marks here and there. I leave some myself occasionally.”

“I know,” I say. “I’ve got the bite marks to prove it.”

“Oh, those aren’t mine,” God says. “Look closer.”

Dental patterns are unique. I know very little about God’s dental features, but I’m familiar with my own. I examine my scars. It appears I’ve been gnawing on myself for years. I run to check nearby loved ones, and yes, I’ve gnawed on them, too. God reveals her tender underarm. Unbelievable. I’ve even gnawed on God.

“Sorry,” I mumble. “That’s not the legacy I was hoping for.” I grab some healing balm and rub it on God’s flesh. The bite marks fade. “I’m so sorry,” I repeat. I offer God my first born, my pajamas, my credit cards, and the book club. God laughs, helps me rub some balm into my own bite marks, and shakes her head.

“None of your stuff fits me,” she says. “But you’re on the right track. Carry on.”

If I Love My Enemies, Who Will Hate Them for Me?

Loving my enemies, even if the list is limited to humans, is a tall order. If other lifeforms are included, say vicious dogs or mutating viruses, all bets are off.

“Who’s betting?” God asks. This is a trick question. Instead of answering, I distract myself by reviewing things or people I detest. First, the obvious: Covid. Putin. But the list rapidly expands until I am simmering in the cauldron of generalized hate. God waits.

The dog I’m in charge of today isn’t vicious, but she’s often overtaken with spasmodic joy when she sees me. Neither of us can contain it. She squeaks, grovels, dashes here and there, and even though she knows better, she leaps up and knocks me down. I yell “No.” She meekly allows me to put her in timeout but then howls in protest. God is still waiting.

One definition of enemy is someone or something injurious or destructive. The dog knocked me over in joy, but the bruises are the same. How does intention factor into this complicated equation?  God clears her throat. I guess I should stop ignoring her.

I’m betting,” I say. “There are too many hateable things and people.”

“You are SO right,” God says. “It’s too much for you. How about you let me do the hating?”

“That would be great!” I say. “I’ve got my list right here.” I hand it to her, but I can’t quite let go. She pulls. The list rips, leaving me clinging to a small corner of the page.

God glances down the list, rips it up, and explodes in laughter. She is a stampede of wild horses pounding the earth. She is an invasive species blooming bright yellow. She wraps her irrepressible presence around the artillery and dies blood red in the battlefield. She is chemo, killing all rapidly reproducing cells, innocent or lethal. She is a Supreme Court bent on destroying democracy, a river rising, a child playing near the den of the rattler. She is Source and the End.

“Hate won’t get you there,” she says, marching by in a parade of endangered species. She tosses me a floatation device, a flak jacket, and some abortion medications to distribute as needed. She puts a big fat hand out, taps her clawed foot, and waits. Reluctantly, I put the remaining corner of the hate list in her palm. She wads it up and eats it with determination reminiscent of Maxwell Smart. I should be happy. Relieved. But I want my list back. Hate is easier, vengeance feels good.

“Hey, God,” I say. “Turns out I don’t want you to do my hating for me. You’re not very good at it anyway.”

“You’re right,” God says. “I’m not.”

Life as a One-Act Play

Shades of green and lavender dance in the background. Even with eyes wide open, it’s impossible to tell if the room has walls or is defined more by water and isolation. Actors are vaguely aware of each other.

Me: (sermonizing to a nebulous offstage audience) Mother Earth is exhausted by this adolescent phase of humanity. We’re facing severe consequence. All it will take is one big planetary shrug and we’ll be a species known only by bones. We’ve failed to outgrow our epic selfishness, destructive impulsivity, and futile denial of mortality. Earth won’t clean up after us forever; our money and phony apologies won’t save us…

God: (muttering to self, pacing) She’s right. They should know better by now. Maybe I should have set firmer limits.

Me: (turning to God) Or maybe you’re sending mixed messages.

God: (slightly mystified) I thought love would be enough.

Me: (sad, defensive) I don’t know why you’d make that assumption. Love is a lot harder than you realize.

God: (indignant) You think I don’t know that?  I keep course-correcting with forgiveness and wearing my best clothes so that nature might have a chance to teach you something. I hate to mention this, but on other planets, things are going better.

Me: (shaken) But aren’t we your planet of choice? Aren’t we your favorites?

God: (thoughtfully muttering to self again) Too close to call. Tough to know how much more to invest. (Turning to me) Everyone wants to be my favorite, but actually, I’m my own favorite. It has to be that way.

Me: (indignant, arms crossed) Well then, I’m my own favorite, too.

God: (wryly) How’s your lumber supply? You’re aware of the supply chain problems, right?

Me: (trying to be funny) Are we talking ark? Greenhouse? Firewood?

God: (expanding to ginormous) All of the above. And more. Add marshmallows to your list.

Me: (despairing) And coffins? We’re gonna need lots of coffins.

God: (grabbing my hand with tenderness, a thousand eyes crying) Yes. I can’t change that. But eventually, they’ll be empty, baby. Empty.

Me: (trying to yank my hand free) Are we talking resurrection or decomposition?

God: (many heads nodding) Yes.

Light fades to the point where photoreceptor cells in the well-developed vertebrate retina are challenged, and the cones let go. Color dies but thanks to the rods, a set of hazy gray paths are still visible. They merge at the vanishing point.

There Will Come a Day

When I got out my vitamin organizer to take my supplements this morning, today’s cubby was empty. I must have dipped in twice yesterday. No wonder I feel overwrought; too much B-complex and an overdose of magnesium may account for my anxious dream last night wherein Barack Obama helped me bandage the finger I cut making his family a salad. I don’t like forgetting, and I don’t like anxious dreams.

But dream we must. Forget we must.  Decline we must. Die we must. There will come a day when the puppy digging in the compost right now is an old, grey-faced mutt, and there will come a morning when no matter how watchful I am, I won’t glimpse my sister, half-crazed on her 4-wheeler, chasing down a skunk with her shotgun.

“Sorry I’m late,” God says as she rushes in. “You’ve rearranged your writing space. I like it.”

“Oh, hi God,” I say. “Coffee?”

God holds up her hand. “No, thanks. I had a cup with your neighbor, and I’m going to treat myself to a latte later. Still catching up on the fiascos of Easter/Passover/Ramadan. And Ukraine…” Her voice cracks.

“Hmmm,” I say. “Want some vitamins or something?”

God smiles and leans forward. “You know I’m not vengeful, right?” I nod and wait. “And you know I don’t play favorites, right?” I nod again, wishing I could be an exception. “And you know branches will always grow toward the sun and move gracefully in the wind, and things you drop will fall toward the center, right?”

I nod a third time suddenly feeling quite sad. “And where do the things you drop go?” I ask in a quiet voice, turning my face away. But God sees my eyes welling up anyway. She makes a fist of her giant hand and thumps herself hard in the chest. “Right here,” she says, and hits herself again. “Right here.”

When I sleep, I shroud the windows in purple velvet drapes. It occurs to me that I’d like my body wrapped in these before it is laid to rest in the garden. “Sounds like a good plan,” God says, voice fading. “I like purple.”

I have the intention of wiping my eyes and nodding again, but neither are possible because I have dissipated into the moment. The drapes are sun-streaked, dusty, and elegant. Granted, it may be an idiosyncratic or imagined elegance, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the gravity-defying blackbird perched on the top branch of the wind-whipped cottonwood.

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.

When the Choir Preaches Back

Sometimes I count my blessings; sometimes I count my years, and though I don’t like admitting it, sometimes I count the number of people I think of as willfully, proudly ignorant, and my mood sinks. But as dawn arrives and light asserts itself, my despair dissipates into benign speculation, and I am among the billions awaiting transitions no one can explain. I watch God in the fire and in the lines of frost across the windows evaporating directly into air. I watch God peacefully protesting greed, misogyny, and cruelty. I imagine my grandchildren and their grandchildren carrying genes across the great divides of life and death, and I am both stricken and intrigued. What could I possibly do to lessen the burdens and reduce the suffering to come?

God emerges gentle. Always gentle. Always sacrificial. Always self-assured. Kindling for the fire. Moisture for the frost. God surrounds me, stone tools, dead branches, herds of deer, flocks of sparrows, and a holy stillness in which I can rest. I don’t want to rest. I am aware of how easily I will break and burn and disappear. I want to speed down the runway and lift into a sky that will leave me unbroken and unchanged.

“If you reduce the suffering, you reduce the joy,” God speaks in everywhere voices. “If you take away the burdens, the bones soften. The understandings recede and the cost rises.”

“Hello, Old Friend,” I say. “Let’s not fight today. I won’t disagree or complain or act as if I know anything at all. Instead, could we fly? Could we walk through fire, find the garden, and open the gates?”

God laughs and lifts a million arms in praise. A multitude of God begins to sway to an inescapable beat; a galactic choir robed in sunrise crimson bursts into a seditious version of the Hallelujah Chorus; I’m not Mormon or Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, Jainist or Hindu, or anything defined beyond my tenuous friendship with God, but as I sidle up, my Friend throws a heavy velvet robe across my shoulders, and I join the altos. We sing the truths of repeated defeat. The roiling ocean of human sorrow buoys us up, the crashing waves, a steady percussion section. Hundreds of soaring sopranos lift off and take the high notes with them, but like spring, they promise to return.

On Being Mean and Hateful

“God, why is being mean so damn gratifying and easy?” I asked from the depths of a very bad mood.

“Because you’re angry,” God answered. “Anger is like a heat-sensing missile. It scans for a target. Once zeroed in, it feels good to release that toxin and blow things up.”

I chewed my thumbnail and said nothing. Questions came to mind, but I didn’t want a sermon. God can be so redundant. Blah blah blah, forgiveness. Blah blah blah, compassion. Blah blah blah, self-sacrifice. It gets old. Aren’t we built for survival? Aren’t we meant for greater things than washing windows, vacuuming, hauling other people’s garbage, and groveling? Why are there winners? Losers? Why is war seductive? Entertaining?

“Don’t answer!” I yelled as God opened his mouth. He closed it and softened into a smiling grandmother with shining black skin, plaited silver hair, and big white teeth. I watched her Mona Lisa smile warily, and my eyes narrowed to slits. “Get away from me,” I said.

She dipped her head and softened into her younger self, supple and innocent. I glared and declared, “I don’t know you.” She bowed her head and softened into a little boy with a baseball mitt and a dream. I shook my head menacingly and frowned at his wistful face. His eyes held mine as he softened into a naked baby kicking in the sunlight that poured through my unwashed windows.

This helplessness sickened me. Complete and utter vulnerability, displayed without a shred of pride or self-consciousness; arms waving, legs kicking, holy drool slipping down the sides of those fat cheeks, landing where new planets will someday emerge, perfectly round.

I backed away. “Don’t make me see, God. Don’t make me old or poor or weak,” I begged, staring down at the infant. “I want to play nice in Eden with very pretty people. I want to be fully understood and adored just as I am. If you’re God, you love me, right? So you can do this. I need a shortcut. A yellow brick road. A red carpet.”

The baby hardened and cracked into fragments of granite, jasper, onyx, and light. The earth beneath my feet was no longer firm. Yoga instructors always say to notice the earth supporting me, but it had become shifting sand. I covered my nose and mouth and dropped to my knees. “Ah, fuck,” I muttered. “I don’t want to deal with myself.”

“You surprise me,” God said from the pile of broken stone. “I thought you were tougher than that.”

“Like I have a choice,” I said, as I turned my face toward the voice.

“Exactly,” God said. “Like you have a choice.”

Senses

Smell is our oldest sense. Collectively, humans can detect billions of different odors. This has played a central role in our evolution, leading to such literary declarations as Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. The sense of smell has made headlines recently because a microscopic organism has been infecting human brains, disabling the senses of smell and taste: a virus not to be trifled with. But then, evil is rarely to be trifled with, right God?

No answer. The silence isn’t holy. But some days, I just keep talking.

And about this notion of evil, God. Who’s evil? What is it? As you know, I don’t like dust settling on things again and again or ashes as a final destination. I like fresh sheets, crisp salad, and good news. Call me shallow, but that’s the way it is, God. I would prefer to be comfortable, adored, young, well-fed, and smart. And whatever deprives me of what I want, well, let’s call that evil, shall we?

My one-way chat takes a nasty turn as the sun intensifies through the window and I see myself reflected on my computer screen in all my dismal glory. “No wonder God is busy elsewhere,” I say to my image in a mean voice. “You’re all the things you dread.” I consider the procedures and surgeries available to make me seem younger, more adorable, smarter. This breaks my fall. My distended ego deflates, and I give myself a smile that naturally lifts the wrinkles.

See, God? Here I am, smiling. All done judging. C’mon by.

I sit. I force myself to say prayers of lovingkindness for the twisted senator, the mouth-breathing fools on the airplanes, lazy neighbors, unkind people, even those who torture, deprive, and dehumanize. I give thanks for my senses, even though I can smell the blood of the disgusting humans who are destroying the planet. Oh, I wish I were the giant.

This last thought finally rouses The Presence. Holy Words, like sleek black animals, invade my brain. “You can’t eat your way to heaven,” they say in a low growl. “You can’t smell your way to salvation. You can’t see the face of God, and you can’t force your way in.” The Words collect around The Presence, and The Presence turns to me, taking the shape of a very old friend.

“The thing that shines in the broken moment, the shelter of translucent skin, these are lessons. Very little of who you are or what you do is to your credit or entirely your fault. Regardless, you will never be the giant. For this, be grateful. Go listen to holiday music. Inhale cinnamon and vanilla.”

“But that seems so…” I pause.

“Shallow?” asks my Very Old Friend. “Simple?”

“Yeah,” I nod. “It’s like giving up. Surrendering.”

“Yes,” my Very Old Friend says. “Much harder than it seems. But you can do it.  I’ll help.”

Thanksgiving

            “Sometimes, your species is hard for me,” God said, looking a little haggard.

            “I know,” I nodded. “I don’t like people that well either. But it’s hard to write them off entirely.”

            “Yeah,” God agreed. “I often wonder what makes me hang in there.” She paused. I waited. “It might be the gratitude,” she said finally. “Humans are capable of saying thanks in a way that warms my heart. Nothing quite like it.”

            “Gratitude?” I asked. “You like that better than when they apologize?”

            God chuckled. Her corporealness was starting to fray. “Are you a worthy representative of all humanity?” she asked in an impish voice, a luminescent grin taking over what was left of her face.

            “No.” I shook my head emphatically. This was a trick question.

            The grin expanded. “Oh, no worries. You’ll do. Tell me how you feel when you’ve messed up and need to say you’re sorry.”

            I grimace. Confession of sins? Facing faults and shortcomings? Asking forgiveness? Not easy. Not fun.  

            “You already know this,” I said, giving God a look. “I hate failing and being wrong. I do not like needing to apologize.” I looked down at my hands and stopped talking, but in my mind, I went further. It’s complicated. I have my pride. Once in a while, I get stubborn and lie to myself or other people. And I blame others and feel sorry for myself…but I didn’t want to mention that to God.

            The eyes of God looked upon my soul. “My point, exactly,” she said. “People often make the same mistakes and sometimes, show up again, woeful and defeated. Or they get defensive and act like they’re not wrong after all. I accept apologies all day long, but I don’t enjoy the process, and I don’t think people do either.”

            God looked at her own hands, cracked a thousand arthritic knuckles, and stood into the stratosphere of herself. She wrapped the cloak of unknowability around her shoulders and set the sky on fire. “So, that’s why I like gratitude better than penance,” she concluded.

            “But how do you know it’s sincere?” I asked, but there would be no answer. The room, the land, the cities, the earth—everything had become one big party.

            God was center stage, doing an Irish jig. Darlings and demons cavorted across galactic dance floors, and all creation clapped and stomped, keeping the intricate beat alive. “Gratitude’s an attitude. Fake it ‘til you make it,” they sang. I couldn’t see who was playing the frenetic fiddle, but I did not want to join this ridiculous reverie. I needed some space, and God knew it. The scene receded and God’s merciful arms surrounded me. Only me.

            “Go in peace,” she said, dismissing me to my quiet place.

            “Thank you,” I whispered.

            “You’re welcome,” God said. We both meant it.