The Great Communicator

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“Let’s face it, God,” I said this morning, sleep deprived and stuffy with allergies. “You’re maybe the worst communicator ever.” God said nothing. I glanced across the back of my brain where bright-eyed children met my gaze more directly than God ever does. I usually don’t like children lingering at the edge of my consciousness, but today I welcomed them.

“Hello, Green-eyed Children,” I said. “Brown-eyed, Blue-eyed, Hazel-eyed, Black-eyed Peas. Hello, hello. How are you, eh? Futureless? Naked? Afraid?” The children were watchful. “Got an uphill battle, don’t you?” I continued. “Not much food on the table. No presents under any trees. No trees, actually. No soap. Well. Why are you here? Why did your mothers have sex? Where are your fathers? This is all your fault, you know. Your own fault.” The children moved closer together, sheltering each other. They’re accustomed to blame. Deprivation. Abuse.

I glanced at my expressionless God. “Say something,” I demanded. “Anything.” I needed to break the accusatory silence, but the silence was breaking me. “Some people think we have souls,” I continued, staring into empty space. “Receptacles where you could leave a message. Minds. Free will.” No reaction. No response. My mind returned to the children. I handed them a deck of tattered cards.

“Play,” I said. “Old Maid. Go Fish. Rummy.” They touched the cards, shy and curious. I pushed a box of Milky Ways toward them. “Eat,” I said. I handed them a jug of fake juice. “Drink,” I commanded.

The twisted charity nauseated me. I whirled, trying to locate the still-silent God. “You phony bag of wind. You know about leafy greens and educational toys. Most hymnals filled with praise to you cost more than a week of healthy meals. Who are they singing to? Who am I speaking to? Say something loud and lovely, something wise. Helpful. Anything. Just communicate, dammit.”

I saw a flash and heard a distant rumble. Was it thunder? The rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air? Was it God? Or the dull roar of an artificial nation sinking in the mire of itself? Actually, it was a truck, diesel engine roaring, lights flashing. The children looked hopeful for a minute, but then mystified as the drivers swung open the back and began handing them guns. Big guns, little guns, long guns, short guns–light-weight and loaded.

“This will be your best friend,” one of the drivers said as he rubbed the head of a tiny girl. “Just aim and shoot. The bad guys will fall down and be gone.”

“What’s a bad guy?” the child asked, as she examined the weapon with wide, iridescent eyes.

“God!” I yelled in utter disbelief. The child turned to me and repeated, “What’s a bad guy?” The gun, a semi-automatic, naturally swung my direction. I flinched, lowered myself to my knees, and raised my hands above my head. Her eyes deepened to holy purple, a luminescent acceptance of my surrender. She smiled like a beatific Madonna as her weapon turned to dust, and she slowly disappeared. I laid myself prostrate on the cool cement and waited. I knew she’d be back.

Grieving in the Old Blue Chair

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Today, I sit in the light of the rising sun, rocking myself in the old blue chair–the one I loaned my mom before she died. It’s an unusually small recliner. For a few months, with planning and effort, she could get out of it by herself. But then she couldn’t. She fell and laid helpless on the institutionally-bland carpet for who knows how long? They found her tangled in the floor lamp, alive but not coherent, her body bruised from her efforts to get up. That was Mom. Never stop trying to get back up.

Dylan Thomas would have approved. Mom did not “go gentle” into any dark nights. In her stubborn way, she raged against the dying of the light. When faced with a challenge, she’d clamp her thin lips tight, stomp on the gas and shoot down the road, her ever-shrinking body taut with determination. She’d arrive in her shiny white Ford, peering at the road from just above the steering wheel. She never stayed long.

God has stopped by to reminisce. He’s wearing decades on his shoulders, and our whole upstairs has become quite crowded. “Oh God,” I say, shifting to make room, glad for the company. “Remember how she believed that when she got to heaven, she’d have to give Dad an account of how she managed the ranch after he died?” God nods, a little teary. He really admired my mom over the years. “And remember how much she gave away?” I added. God smiles with pride.

There’s not much else to say. Those last three days, death pulled her tenderly down through the layers of life until it was just her brain stem fighting for air. The Wasabi sting of emotion threatens my placid mood as I sit with the memory of her  insistent breath, sucked in and out, in and out, irregular and awful. Not a memory anyone needs to have.

After she fell out of this chair, she never sat in it again. I brought it home—slightly more worn. I’ll keep it a while.

“Tell her, will you?” I ask God.

“Tell her yourself,” God answers, and holds up a mirror Mom carried in her purse. She used it to reapply her lipstick and smooth her hair. God slips open the purple plastic cover, and I see the unadorned eyes and lips of eternity–of now and forever. I see the eyes of God, wide like a baby, and the lips of God, as full as Bob Marley’s, singing.

I fight to let God’s swaying body save me–to believe in mercy and compassion in this broken, greedy, hungry world. To use my breath for good, and welcome my demise with grace. I rock in the old blue chair, sun warming my bones, while God, as audacious and angular as ever, dips and weaves as he hammers out the beat on the steelpan drums.

A Farewell to September

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September has begun picking at the clothing summer gave her, refusing to eat, and sighing a lot. There’s little doubt it’s about over. October is waiting in the wings, audacious, pregnant with color, unafraid of snow.

“What’s your favorite month?” I ask God. I say this just to get a little conversation going. I don’t actually care about God’s favorite month, and usually, I hate these kinds of questions.

But I ask because God seems distant today. God is in a very big mood. Bigger than sky or any of the planets in our solar system. Bigger than whatever is beyond what we can see. Big. You might think such a big God wouldn’t have time to contemplate her favorite month, but you’d be wrong. As God and I have gotten better acquainted, certain subtleties of her personality have surfaced. She can be stubborn and compulsively attentive to minutia. She likes chit chat. For someone who created the known and unknown universe, she can seem quite shallow and petulant, although she’s also the ultimate role model for apologies and forgiveness. There’s a steadiness I appreciate, even if some of her ways annoy or confuse me.

“I like them all,” she answered. Her voice was knowing. Patient. “But there’s something intriguing about December in Montana, don’t you think?”

I regretted asking. I could feel some kind of lesson coming on. “Depends on what you mean by intriguing,” I said. “I don’t like snow, or the holidays, or bare branches, or slick roads. If you mean the fight to survive is intriguing, then yeah, I guess.”

God didn’t answer directly. Instead, she blurred herself into the gray ash of a cremated body. The bruised purple of sunrise filtered through the translucent storm that was God. I watched wide-eyed and afraid as she rolled the months into a blanket with an impatient flourish. She grabbed my soul, wrapped me tight in the distorted jumble of seasons, and suddenly, we were on the shores of Hawaii. There, clad in bright strips of rags, she scrubbed out the differences on sharp volcanic rocks, welcoming waves of salt water with the wrinkled solemnity of the ancient ones. Gradually, all beautiful, all dangerous, all vital distinctions gave way and floated out to sea.

“There you go,” she said. “An occasional hurricane, but otherwise, totally placid. Bland. Uniform. Predictable. Safe. Are you happy now?”

I hung my head and said, “No. Not really.”

And then I was alone. September doesn’t need me anymore but I know the perils of October all too well. Before the ground freezes, I will transplant rhubarb and stack the split and fragrant wood high against the coming winter. I’ll warm myself in the crackling circle of fire, and with the few words I have left, I’ll resurrect the seasons, even those that will eventually do me in.

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.”

 

Red Box

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God and I are meandering down the alley. I’m on foot. God’s doing a high-wire act to make me laugh. There are crows, evidence of squirrels, and things discarded littering our way. Among the riffraff I find the redeemable. I offer thanks for the empty gift box flashing fancy red from a garbage can, and driftwood, smooth as skin, and seven or eight green apples, all bruised from the fall. I commune with the broken, hoping to catch a direct glimpse of my constant, often invisible, sometimes putrid companion who hides among the worst of it. The ways of God aren’t always pretty, safe, or easy. But I’ve learned to never, ever sanitize God. It causes a crippling loss of the sensations that make us human.

Today, it appears God wants to be silly, but shoes hanging by their laces from electrical lines don’t do much for me. Everything seems stupid. “Hey Goofball,” I venture. “Could you stop clowning around? I don’t want to laugh right now.” Honesty usually works well with the Holy Goofball. She can make her hide thicker than a crocodile’s. But this time, her skin is thin and she’s reactive.

“What makes you think this is for you?” she asks, voice sharp and petulant. “It isn’t always about you.” I look around. Lilac bushes are wilting. Alley weeds transgress, ugly and aggressive. Dust and smoke swirl. And then I notice that a muttering woman with a Safeway shopping cart has turned toward us. Why’d she turn? It isn’t even a paved alley. But here she comes. Snarling. Incoherent. A small, vicious world pulled tight around her—she’s walled herself off from gentleness, reason, or even meaningful contact. She’s a one-winged bird, flapping low. The gravel impedes her progress, but even so, she’s steadily getting closer.

Unhinged people frighten me.

Of course, I know, you know, God is permanently, proudly, unhinged. An ever-present danger to my complacency. Ultimately, it’s always God pushing the shopping cart, arriving as requested. I often wonder why I ask. But this is irrelevant. The street lady comes for us all, requested or not.

She waits, scowling, while I meekly climb in. There’s room for my red box, the driftwood, and a few of the apples. I am adding to her burden, but I see no other option. This unflinching, castoff God shows me the way, holding a fractured mirror.

My real home is a borrowed wire cage, my shelter permeable, mostly imagined. I am wilting lilacs, aggressive weeds, swirling smoke and fine gray dust. I am the favored child of an unhinged God, waiting to see what will happen next.

When God Is Old

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God was so old today, I hardly recognized him. Not a vision of loveliness, by any stretch. But should God be lovely? Youthful? Sexy? Yes, in my opinion, that would be nicer. But I didn’t turn away. I gazed on the decrepit body, looked into eyes filmy with cataracts. Tolerated the musty odor. Sank my teeth into the putrid truth of decline, flesh draped loosely on frail bones, a framework coming apart.

“What’re you up to?” I asked with false cheeriness, hoping for a rapid transformation. God can do that—one thing one moment, another the next. In the blink of an eye, God can go from bird to mosquito, river to refugee, pauper to king. But the only blink today was a slow one, as God’s focus landed laboriously on me.

“Hi, stranger,” he said, with a wry smile. That was all it took to transform my feeble friendliness into open hostility. This passive-aggressive, accusatory, guilt-inducing shriveled up mockery of life, insinuating I hadn’t been visiting him enough? Acting as though we’re such good friends, like I should visit every day, like I should move in, like I owed him something? I sat silent, but I fumed inside. How dare he try to prevail on my time? I have a life, you know. Why is he old like this?

But with God, if you think it, you may as well say it. His head dropped to his chest, clearly hurt, maybe even afraid. “Sorry,” he said, drawing into himself even further.

I was stricken and ashamed. God weathers all sorts of rejections, but mine seemed to cause him real pain. “No, I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it. I calmed myself and waited for him to lift his head again. I showed him pictures of the grandchildren and garden. I gave him three small beets, an onion, and a large bouquet of deep green parsley. I reached over and patted his translucent hand. “When will this be over?” I asked, with the little patience I could muster.

He didn’t respond, but I knew the answer. Always. Never. God is a transitional verb, unconstrained. God is a hall of mirrors, a blaze of glory on a far horizon. A voluptuous virgin, a greasy-haired teen. But today and forever, God is an old, old man. None of this is acceptable to my primitive mind. My digital watch constantly flashes an ever-changing hour, but the knobby joints in my fingers still bend. God and I hold hands. He eventually nods off and I am free to go. I step into the slipstream of an apparent day, trying to accept the transitory nature of all things real.

 

Piano

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God and I took a piano apart today. We had help. Even so, it didn’t go especially well. The carcass, keys, pedals, hammers–everything had been overrun by mice, so the smells were unpleasant. The rusted screws and bolts were unpleasant. The mouse nests were worse than unpleasant. But the conversation we had with the backbone of the piano—the tightly strung strings that make the music—that was worth it all. The intricate innards whispered otherworldly commentary every time we made a move. We salvaged the motherboard, serenaded by jangled synchronicities and disturbing harmonics.

Now we are resting. God is a broken, decrepit piano. I am a nymph with a sore back. God is a stone, gleaming among stones in the hot sun. I am a glass of clear water. God is dimming the sun, pulling clouds around in the sky. I’m old, longing for ice cream. God is a worry and a bother. I am a sweaty artist, a two-bit wordsmith. God is color and dirt. We are calm together.

“Ah, it is good to work hard and then rest, isn’t it?” God asks. “I like you this way.”

“What way?” I ask. “And anyway, aren’t you supposed to like me no matter what?”

God laughed. “Yeah. You got me there. But I mean, relaxed. Not anxious or angry. You spend so much time revved up. And I spend so much time reminding you that you’re wasting energy. You aren’t as good looking when you’re worried. Sometimes, you aren’t even nice.”

“But, but…” I sputtered. I knew it was true. In fact, there are days I like not being nice. There are times I’m happy to be a cynical hypocrite–driven, desperate, and nasty.

“It’s okay,” God said. “I get there myself occasionally.”

“I know,” I said, relieved and then stricken. “And at those times, you are REALLY not good looking.”

For a nano-second, I knew the magnitude of God’s misery even though it vastly exceeds human understanding. The writhing pain of God screams through eternity, collapsing galaxies in its wake. It’s the vicious emptiness of black holes, lonely dark matter avalanching through the space-time continuum. We carry only the tiniest portion of this desolation in our deepest bones. We have no choice. I have to remind myself it is an honor.

“It’s hard, but I try to love you,” I said to this pitiful face of God. It seemed a paltry offering, but it was all I had.

“I know,” God said, the face regaining some of the vibrant color that feeds my soul. “And it helps. Let’s go strum those piano strings again.”

It was hot, but we went back to the shed to touch the vibrating center of all things salvaged. All things sacred. In the end, there is only one song.