The Words Live On

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This past week, Ram Dass died. He’d had a stroke in 1997, and his acceptance of that disabling event was inspiring. This morning as I read over quotes that capture his sensibilities, I feel envy. Don’t we all want to be a guru? An old soul? But I say to myself, “Choose your poison, choose your longings, choose your savior. But most importantly choose your words.” Ram Dass knew the power of choice and the power of words, especially after the stroke. Words are part of the way we build up or tear down. We can hurt each other with a simple twist of the tongue. We can speak vicious untruths.

One of the reasons I like God is that God lives so far beyond words. Sure, she stops by, and we chat in English (I am hopelessly monolingual), but sometimes she lifts me by the back of my neck and nestles me down in something indescribably warm and delicious. “What is this place?” I ask by lifting one eyebrow. She laughs.

“I call it forgiveness,” God says. “But you might think of it as gratitude. The place where the best ideas are born. I don’t know. Call it whatever you’d like. Use your words.”

I throw a holiday pillow at God. She’s put a Christmas stocking on her head and wrapped solar LED lights around her waist. “In the beginning was the Word,” she says, teasing, almost giddy. “Why do people ignore that? Word. Word. Word.” She then begins singing. “All you need is Love…da da da da da…All you need is Love. Love. Love is all you need.” She leans in, holding a golden microphone. In the glow, I feel old. Unshiny. Words are escaping me at ever accelerating rates. I want them back. I want fresh starts, clean sheets, no scars. And lots of fancy words. But God just shakes her booty and turns up the volume.

There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be
It’s easy…Love is all you need.

“Lennon and McCartney.” She kisses her fingertips and takes a bow. “Brothers from another planet.” Again, envy. I want to be a brother from another planet. I want to be Ram Dass, Maya Angelo, Sir Paul, Lady Gaga, Nancy Pelosi, Mother Theresa, and Harriett Tubman. I want to matter. The glib assurances of salvation from a distant God, formulas and pat answers—I spit them out. I want to eat first fruits from the magic tree.

“Oh, no you don’t,” God says, suddenly quite serious.  “No, you absolutely do not want to do that. Why on God’s green earth do you think such things?”

“Because someone has to save us from ourselves,” I say. But I know that isn’t true. It’s already too late, and the saving has been neatly wrapped in the dying for longer than anyone but God can remember. God grins at me. “Been there, done that,” she says. “And to tell you the truth, sometimes I wonder if it was worth it.”

Now I’m the one who is suddenly serious. “Oh, it was, baby God,” I say, letting those words take my entire being. “It absolutely was.”

What You Are Now

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Sometimes I pedal around town on my bike meditating. The alleys, the streets, even the funky traffic patterns are as familiar as my hands. I’ve lived in dozens of locations and left my DNA all over the place. It’s my town.

God rides along wearing my memories; scarves and beads, seven chickens, a hundred trees. I try to accept the shocking truth that the world goes on without me, but I resent it. God is relatively gentle about this, pointing out how tall the trees have grown.

“What good are these damn memories?” I ask as they pelt me like sheets of sudden rain. I’m drenched. Shivering. Sad. The bygone days are a howling pack of coyotes; phantoms that leave teeth marks, longings without names.

“Not everything is good in isolation,” God says. “You’re not what you remember.”

“Oh, thanks.” My voice drips with sarcasm. “That helps a lot.”

“It will,” God says. “Give it time.”

I stop the bike and sit on the curb beside a large mound of fallen leaves. I remember crawling under a pile like this. October. Centuries ago. But the sound of the rain on the brittle leaves was yesterday. It occurs to me that I would like to be buried in a pile of leaves, here on a side street, in a ceremony so quiet no one is inconvenienced in the least.

“You already are,” God says. “C’mon. Let’s ride. I’m getting restless.”

“Fine,” I say. We pedal toward a steep hill and begin the climb, me seeking perspective, God enjoying the ride. I’m so easily seduced by the idea of my own importance, sucked into the undertow of imagined glory. The view helps. I watch the little city move itself here and there as I catch my breath. Then I turn the bike around. The downhill stretch is littered with rocks and potholes, but my tires are full and the light is good.

God and I gather speed as we cruise back into the thick of it. I think to myself, it’s probably after 3 already, but I check my watch. It’s nearly 5. Too many young people smile at me. Newer model cars zip by. My brakes squeak, and my resolve weakens, but I find solace in the alleys. Discarded grace, throw rugs, pottery, and a pile of sticks for firewood.

God hops off. A thousand wings begin designing the sunset dipping liberally into orange and magenta. I strap the rugs and pottery on my bike, drape the grace around my shoulders, and make a mental note to pick up the firewood later. I wonder if I’ll remember. I wonder if it matters. I wonder whose elongated evening shadow is peddling ahead of me. It’s vaguely familiar, but God is right; I’m not what I remember.

Nada

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God wasn’t present in any noticeable way this morning, but I had that spidey sense she was hovering somewhere close by. I thought maybe a little chatter would draw her out. “God,” I said. “Sometimes you and I have a communication gap. And I can see why. There’s me. An average, timeworn human–two bumpy hands, a couple of creaky knees, an increasingly unreliable memory, sporadic compassion–and then there’s you. From what we’ve observed so far, you seem to have created 10 billion galaxies, each of which averages 100 billion stars—one, (one!) of which is the fiery orb asserting itself in my own little sky right now.” I tried looking deeply impressed. No response.

“You are absurdly, incomprehensibly intangible, nonbodied, nonbound. You are without need for breath. You are breath. You are beyond time. It’s a toy of yours. You have no name and every name. You are the namer. We have little to nothing in common, but here you are, hanging around.” I thought maybe admitting I could sense her would cause a response. Nope.

“God, look,” I said. “You’ve always treated us humans with respect, even when we amputate compassion, act like idiots, and appropriate the idea of you for our own ends. I wish we didn’t do that, but you have to admit you’re difficult, you big old lunk of creativity. You tiny speck, you source of suffering and disaster, comfort and shelter. You ladybug, sea monster, apple fallen close to the tree. You infectious laugher, chill of death, you decomposer. You teller of the final truth. Most of us don’t like the real you very much.

“I know,” God said, finally speaking up. “But I’m grateful when I can absorb even a little bit of liking. I make do with very little.”

“Someday, I won’t exist,” I said. “Then what?”

“Do I exist?” God answered.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Then, darling, we have something in common after all, don’t we?” God took a long swig of an awful tasting green smoothie I’d made and spit it back in the cup.

“Good lord!” she said. “Why in the world do you drink things like this?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “In fact, right now, I know nothing.”

“Excellent answer,” God said. “You’re lying, but that’s okay. It’s an aspirational nothingness. Another thing that we might have in common. Eventually.”

I thought about that for a minute. Yes, I know nothing for certain, but I speculate endlessly, grabbing what appears to be solid, holding on for dear life. We are splintered, me and God. But there’s something. Something. Or maybe I have it wrong. There’s Nothing. A deep, resonant Nothing where our trueness will finally be at peace.

“Could you give me some space?” I asked God. “Today, you’re too much.”

God gave me a regal nod and complied. In the dead silence, I was as bereft as I’ve ever been. And as loved. And as complete.

Your mama told you there’d be days like this

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In the southeast corner of my life there’s a perfect circle of stone visible to anyone uphill or airborne. The northern boundary is an entirely different story. It’s a river that shapeshifts with the seasons. Water washes over the fallen cottonwood, gouges the mountain, and settles in deadly eddies.

Today, it is all too much, and paradoxically, nothing is ever enough. Not God, not people, not earth, not sky. The small and large injustices plaguing me have metastasized and lit the landscape with a cold, blue fire.

Some small part of me lives in fear. Lives in fear. Lives in fear. I’d like to kill off that part and live with more grace. That part would like to kill me off and reign as a vicious sovereign. Usually, I keep her underground and undernourished. Today, I am sorely tempted to throw her red meat. Why not? The world is awash in sovereigns eating red meat. I myself am mostly red meat.

God is a stretch of long gray sky, atmospherically unstable. Dead in the way of winter. The first signs of spring arrive from the grave—weeds, spiders, mud, and hunger. Mating rituals begin. Some will die showing off their antlers or plumage. Some will be passed over and never bear fruit. So what? That’s what I say. So what?

The gardener has turned the soil. The physician has opened a vein. The old woman is wearing her apron. The migrant has crossed the border. A child has been born. They are all doomed with the dignity of temporary flesh, but as they hold hands, as the world turns, as the rivers flow, as rocks hold firm, as the ozone shreds, as the species evolve, as fatal floods fertilize and recede, a certain and tragic joy remains. I want none of it.

For now I will stubbornly inhabit the illusion of autonomy. God has agreed to stay west of here, busily mixing the colors that will mark the setting of this particular sun. “Thank you,” I murmur, aware of the costs of such holy self-restraint. God nods.

No one goes it alone, but glittering fools pretend otherwise, and sometimes, I join them, peering at the world through my homemade periscope. With carefully-placed mirrors, you can create endless images of the same thing.

Random and Small Redemptions

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Lately, I’ve been having the weirdest experiences ever. I call them God, but they freak me out. Little serendipities. Parallel visions of fire. Random and small redemptions. Good things happen. Are they God? Bad things happen. Are they God? Can you pray yourself into an astounding win? Can you pray yourself out of a fatal car wreck? No wonder people yank God down into manageable formulas and comforting, though wildly implausible, explanations. Believing into an open, infinite God is hard.

“Oh baby,” God interjected. “I so hope you’ll grow up a bit more before you die.”

“So do I… And how would that happen exactly?” I said, somewhat sincerely. And then things came completely apart. The chains fell. Static and then silence. The call dropped. The line went dead. The station went off the air. The grid went down. My familiar body was suddenly defined by subzero isolation, white noise, and emptiness turning in on itself. Eternal nothingness. No self. No one.

“Can you hear me now?” God whispered. The words froze in the air and shattered. I forced my fists to splay into fingers and asked my bones if they still were there. The familiar rattle reassured me. I inhaled, filled what I assumed were my lungs, fell backward into oblivion, and flailed until I’d created an imperfect angel. Then I burrowed home on hands and knees, knowing the way instinctively.

“You crack me up,” God said as I emerged from my self-inflicted plummet.

I struggled for footing in a nonexistent present. “And obviously, you crack me up. But not in a good way,” I mumbled through unfamiliar lips.

“Emptiness is a good way,” God said. “Think about it. The fullness of time is the end of time.”

We sat for a while, breathing shared and splendid air. “Sometimes, I dream I’m weightless,” I said. “And I can fly.”

“Yes,” God said.

“And I can see forever and hear every beautiful sound ever made,” I said, lying.

“Nice try,” God said. “That’s not the kind of growth I was hoping for.”

“I know,” I said. “But you like it when I crack you up.”

“True,” God said. “There’s that. And I guess you realize you can’t really lie to me.”

“Yeah” I said. “But you let people lie all the time. I hate that. You don’t swoop in, smite them, or even clear things up.”

“True,” God said. “I just wait.”

“Okay,” I said. I’d had enough sparring for a while. “I’ll wait with you.”

“Promise?” God said, with a resigned, lonesome look.

The question didn’t surprise me, but my answer made me incredibly sad. “You know I can’t.”

God’s head dropped. I knew he was crying. I took him in my arms and said gently but firmly, “I can’t promise you anything, God. But I’ll try. I’ll really try.”

God the Recycler

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Turkeys descend on the compost pile, pecking and pooping, while the earth turns this side of herself to the light, and I sit muddled in mortality. Snow glistens with insolence but like all things seen and unseen, winter’s days are numbered. The life expectancy of a wild turkey is ten years. Of the chickadee hopping around in the chokecherry branches, it’s less than two. Fighting the false claims of linearity, I remind myself that Allah, God, Creator and Redeemer, is the ultimate recycler—a saver and transformer. But I need reassurance. “Some transformations take longer than we’ll glimpse in this life, right?” I poke an elbow into God’s ribs.

“What’d you say?” God said, startled.

“I said you’re a devoted saver. A long-haul recycler.” For once, I’d snuck up on God.

“Ah. Sorry. You’re right.” God nodded, distracted. “Say, could I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I said, glad for any diversion God might provide.

“Okay. So, I’m God. Alpha and Omega. Beyond Big. And I love every measly nano-bit of my creation. I mean beyond little. And my intention has been and will always be to provide a transformation path for everything. Everyone. Always. Forever. What do you make of that?”

“I’d say I’m glad, but you’ve got your work cut out for you.” I felt relieved that God was who I thought he was.

“It’s your work, too,” God said, taking my face in his hands. “That’s why you have consciousness. A self-reflective loop.”

“Oh.” I groaned. But I let the reassurance of those warm hands sink in. “But you’ll take care of the heavy stuff, right? I mean like Hitler and Genghis Khan and nuclear weaponry and the racist and the unrepentant greedy unsaved types, and the billionaires and liars?”

“There’s more than enough work to go around.” God sighed. “I’m always in the thick of it. And of course, there are all those ‘helpers’ who think they can decide who’s ‘saved’, and how, and when…as if it’s an end state!” God snorted and did air quotes when he said the words “helpers” and “saved.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s irritating. They have formulas.”

“I know,” God said. “Magic words. Allegiances with guarantees. And get this–you know what happens when I infiltrate and hint that maybe, everyone is already saved, will be saved, and will need saving again?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t try that anymore. You’re brave.”

“Well,” God said. “You’d think their hearts would leap for joy, but no, they aren’t the tiniest bit happy for the unwashed masses. They’re disappointed. Angry, even. They argue and quote scripture–to me! They can’t stand the possibility that no one is going to hell for very long.”

“Well, that’s…Ah, that’s…” My own revenge fantasies were threatening to surface. What do you say to God at this point? Luckily, I’ve hung out with God enough to realize that I don’t want to want anyone or anything to end up separated, destroyed, or useless. God and I argue sometimes, but I hardly ever argue that someone should be damned forever. It’d be futile anyway. God is not only the source and definition of love, God is beyond stubborn. God never gives up. Though I’m not equipped to glimpse the whole, I suspect his recycling program is massive, fascinating, and makes use of both joy and fire. God’s compost is to die for.

“You’re a little scary,” I said, finally. “But I like your style.”

“Thanks,” God said back, rubbing my blue-gray hair with real affection. “I like yours too.”

Perfection

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A lot of my inventions don’t work out very well, but usually this doesn’t stop me from trying again. The lure of perfection shimmers on the horizon. For example, I dreamed up a way to install window trim that would reduce cold drafts, but it turns out that this  severely complicates the process of taking down the shades–to the point of aching arms, hammered thumbs, obscenities and temporary defeat.

So this morning, with the shade half in and half out, I’m thinking about perfection. Is intention enough? Does anything fit the definition for long? Does detaching transform imperfection? Achieving perfection seems both precarious and potentially boring. Some people think God is perfect, but if there’s a God, it’s unlikely she’s boring. Is perfection an end state or a process?

“Both,” God said, slowly materializing near the woodstove. “And hey, did I slip in gradually enough this time?” She was dripping eucalyptus oil into the hot water, trying to calm me down and perhaps, dilute the odor of this morning’s burned toast or maybe the toxic fumes from the varnish I’d applied to an imperfect tabletop last night.

I nodded. “Want some tea?” I asked, my voice tight, embarrassed about the window shades and the black crusts of toast.

“Sure,” she said.

The eucalyptus was stinging my eyes. “You may’ve overdone that essential oil thing,” I said, as I put the tea kettle on the stove.

“Well,” God said. “Essence is hard to calibrate.”

I gave God a glance. “Why do you say things like that?” I asked. “You’re so obscure and elusive.”

“Am not,” God said. It was such an adolescent response I smiled despite myself as I put tea leaves in the boiling water. The scent of spearmint mingled with varnish and eucalyptus. The aroma of burned toast had dissipated, being a more transitory odor.

“So, about perfection,” I said. “Is that what you are? Is it possible? How would you define it?”

God blew across the surface of her tea. “It’s like…well…” She eased back in the rocker, looking thoughtful. “Seeds,” she said finally, glancing out the window. This hit a sore spot. An irregular layer of snow blanketed the garden beautifully, but the last few summers, that damn garden had resisted anything near perfection. Trying to address the problems had only made them worse. Things had gotten ugly. I felt a bit defensive.

God continued, trying a different angle. “Perfection lives inside perception. Perfection is not the thing itself.” But my mood had deteriorated. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” I said. “Want some toast?”

“Sure,” God said, sighing. “But no jelly.” I nodded. “And I’ll try not to burn it,” I said in a self-deprecating tone.

“Perfect,” God said with an impish grin. I knew she was joking around, but I felt like burning the toast on purpose.

“Either way, sweetheart,” God said. “I’ll eat it either way.”