Keeping the Beat

“Rough night?” God asks gently from deep within the wee hours.

“You know it was,” I say with some desperation.

“Yeah, I guess I do.” God looks haggard. “Thanks for not pelting me with your anxieties. I needed the rest.”

Though it may be blasphemous to report this, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve glimpsed God limping across my consciousness, disillusioned, tired, and sad.

The act of construing (or being) God beyond the guarantees and constraints of our limited vision is sometimes labeled blasphemy by those with frightened rigid streaks. And it can be dangerous. There are still people defending God by killing other people.

We sit. The day lumbers forward.

I have a gallon of forest green paint and an array of possible surfaces. God has a universe in mortal pain. Is it blasphemous to pity God? If I forget the dance steps, is it heretical if I just move in a way that meshes with the music and the tempo?

“Funny you mention tempo,” God says. “I could use a new set of drums. Mine’ve been beat to hell.”

“No surprise there,” I sigh. “Everything about you has been beat to hell.”

“And back?” God asks with a hopeful tilt of the head.

“And back.” I nod. “Maybe that’s why you get so wiped out. Hell and back is a rugged journey to make over and over.”

We sit. Afternoon has somehow arrived.

“You’ve made that trip for me a few times, haven’t you?” I don’t have to ask; I was along for the ride.

“It was worth it.” God ruffles my hair, looking a little perkier.

“Want some pasta?” I offer a plate of leftovers I’ve warmed up. “Happy to share.”

“That’s kind of you,” God says. “But I think you better eat it yourself. And open the paint. And get on with what’s left of the day. There’s another night coming.”

“I know,” I say.  “And I’ll do my best.”

An army of motley angels is marching by.

“What do we want?”

“Justice.”

“When do we want it?”

“Now.”

“Gotta go,” God says, and begins to parade down the hall, a whole battery of raucous and enthusiastic drummers. I want to cling or march along, but God waves and shouts, “Baby, open the paint. And even if it gets crazy dark, try to keep the beat.”

Interruptions

“Have you noticed how often you interrupt me?” God asks, annoyed.

My verbal output may have been somewhat one-sided, driven by holiday agitation. I was holding forth about the ways of the world, all things irritating or ignorant, the costs of blind faith, and how positive and upbeat I think others should be. Including God.

“Sorry,” I say. “Go ahead. I’ll try to listen better.”

“Never mind,” God says. “I forgot what I was going to say anyway.”

Unlikely, I think to myself. How could the Living Word forget what she was going to say? But I sit politely as if I believe her, and she sits politely as if she’s not upset. As if she’s not reading my thoughts. As if people in the Ukraine aren’t very, very cold right now. As if people in my own community aren’t planning how to cheat on taxes and take more than their share. As if goodness and honesty and peace might have a chance.

Managing ourselves, three dogs, and four piglets in subzero weather has made everyone snippy. When it’s this cold, all manner of things can go wrong. Yes, I regularly interrupt God and the natural order, but isn’t that the human story? Most of us don’t want to die of exposure, physical or otherwise. We burn fossil fuels and hide among falsehoods and fairytales.

I follow God’s gaze to one of my many disorganized bookshelves. It’s a motley rainbow of words in shiny covers. I love books. I would get up and touch them, but I don’t want to spoil God’s revery. It’s obvious she finds comfort in the books, the words, the great and mighty abstractions contained in those bound and precious editions. I’m glad we have this in common.

“Do you ever interrupt yourself?” I ask God after our shared silence has run its course.

“Oh, yes,” she nods with a sad look. “Many times. It’s always tragic.”

She turns her hands palms up, stares at the scars, and like George Harrison’s guitar, she begins to gently weep. This always makes me cry.

She looks straight at me, wipes away the tears, and drops us into a bittersweet world where true words are like heirloom seeds; planted and watered, converting light to something verdant, innocent, and delicious. No comforting myths. No lies. No interruptions.

I know we cannot stay, but I give thanks before we return to the inescapable veracity of dogs, pigs, and fire. Mulled wine. Good cheer. In the chaos of Christmas, God and I make eye contact, and despite the contradictions, we vow to be respectfully conversant with this fragmented, freezing world.

Still Life

There are two granny smith apples in the basket, slightly bruised and aging out. 
The thought of eating one sets my teeth on edge. I don’t know why I buy them.
It’s a repeating pattern with me and fruit. I have unfettered access 
and there’s room in my cart, but is that reason enough? 

I sit with the ethereal miracle of vibrant green, tangerine, and sweet potato 
in the loosely woven wicker that holds things together for now.
Minutes and hours fall from the heavy sky. I keep watch, 
and in my own way, I pray.

There’s tea steeping and a bag of chips open in case God comes by. 
She likes the salt. I like the company. I try to be accepting, 
not greedy, not demanding, not intrusive, not filled 
with expectations. Just quiet and receptive.
But it sucks. It’s harder than winter.

The God small in each of us is to blame for tart apples and the long seasons 
of discontent. We are unskilled at listening, even less skilled at loving. 
I hear God in the hallway, dragging something behind her walker.
It must be laundry day.

Well, I can’t wait forever. I have errands and obligations. 
I understand how the self-important God of billions 
might ignore me now and then, but the laundry lady?
When God embodies thus, the roles reverse. 
She’ll ask me for quarters and for help
folding her flannel sheets.

Road Rage

When I’m driving around, sometimes a line pops into my head and I think it deserves a whole poem. Like this little phrase earlier today: The exquisite pain of knowing… The chances of remembering it for long were slim, so as I negotiated the traffic, I repeated it over and over, even though I didn’t think I was in pain. I was, instead, enraged.

The roads were terrible; people were driving stupid. It’s election day and as usual, my beloved state has gone to the highest bidders. Good, honest people ran against paranoia and lost. I knew I was angry, but when God tapped me on the shoulder I jerked the wheel and yelled, “Fuck you, God.” This surprised us both.

I’m home now but there’s no poem waiting for me. God made a hasty exit at a red light. Fine with me. Who needs any kind of God riding along, let alone a misrepresented, passive one?

To ward off a potential return, I put my fingers in my ears and sing la la la la la. I think of people who don’t love me and hate them for it. And then I retract the hate because I don’t want to be loved anyway. I’m weary of it all. I make herbal tea and wait for the end.

“Finished?” God asks, in a quiet, almost tender voice.

“Yeah,” I say. “You?”

“Oh, I’ve been finished for a very long time.”

“Did you quit or were you fired?” I’m still feeling a little hostile, but I push a slice of sourdough toast toward God. Breaking bread together might help.

“Technically, I was finished before I started,” God says, and takes a bite of the toast.

I make a face, hoping to signal that I don’t like these cryptic answers.

God also makes a face. “There’s something wrong with this toast. It’s bitter.”

“Well, why don’t you whip out your magic wand and fix it?”

God smiles. “Because as I said, I’m done. I turned in my wand so we could be friends. Maybe you should feed this to your pigs.”

“We’re going to eat those pigs someday,” I say.

“I doubt it,” God says. “But good on you for trying.”

The snow continues, and visibility is limited. There will be anger, anxiety, and accidents throughout the day. Night will fall and bring a temporary peace. This moment will be the last for some. The first for others.

God remains soft and circular. I am linear and limited, and I realize that this is the knowing that brings the exquisite pain.

No worries, I whisper to myself. You’re tough. And you can always make more bread. This isn’t true, but God doesn’t contradict me. For that, I am grateful.

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.”

Stung

About an hour ago, I opened a shed door oblivious to the wasp nest this disturbed. The response was swift and precise. My right nostril exploded in pain, and I went a little crazy, swatting my own nose, jumping around, yelling, and running. My eyes watered, my face swelled, and a sneezing fit hit me.

I am now in recovery, subdued and holding still to keep the baking soda and Benadryl cream in place. God saw the whole thing. He raced to the house with me and is sitting nearby, but I’m not interested in chatting with anyone remotely responsible for wasps.

“Not fair,” God says.

“Whatever,” I say. “Who in their right mind would let a creature like that evolve?”

“Why do you keep assuming I have a right mind?”

“Clearly, you don’t. How about I stop thinking you’re responsible for anything?”

“That would be an improvement.”

We sit in silence. Me, nursing the sense of betrayal I feel when things go wrong, or I get hurt. God, sitting by. Just sitting by.

In a crisis, does it matter if there’s a God sitting by? Especially one who absolves itself of pestilence, pettiness, and pain? I don’t know.

God continues to sit calmly while I-don’t-knowness fills the room.

“In no way do I absolve myself,” God says. “But don’t worry. You cannot believe me into existence, and unbelief doesn’t get rid of me.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask, still feeling sorry for myself.

“You have a tendency to parse and attribute agency and blame. The greater Whole doesn’t come apart. There’s a reason for my name.”

“Which one?” I ask, but I know the answer. God’s first name is I AM. Simple. Overly inclusive, present tense, unequivocal, and far beyond interference or comprehension. It’s the big I AM, sitting by.

“Not sitting by,” God says. “Sitting with. Sometimes, sitting within.”

“The wasp is dead,” I say. “And I’m going to kill the rest of them.”

“I totally understand,” God says. “And for what it’s worth, I believe in you.”

“Well, that might be a badly misplaced belief.”

“I know. But it’s what I do.”

I put on layers of impenetrable clothing, grab the wasp spray, and prepare to do battle. I wish manna would drop from heaven and feed the hungry. I wish a great wind would arise to cleanse and save the earth. I wish self-absorbed liars would be seen for the vicious creatures they are. I wish the wasps would disappear like locusts at the end of a plague, but I know they won’t. Innocent others will be going through that door. Like Bonhoeffer plotting to kill Hitler, I am deeply conflicted, but it’s clear: This one’s up to me.

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.”

Water

The river has risen to magnificence, inflicting random agonies. I play the pain on my old guitar and the pain plays me like water. We are an unlikely duet. I yield the melody to the flooding river because my ragged vocal cords cannot handle the range this song demands. There are high notes best expressed with compassion and exquisitely controlled vibrato, and bass notes so low they trouble the souls of those with ears to hear.

God dances on the surface of the swirling eddies, a child performing in her first recital, insects reveling in abundance. Entire homes float by. “What can we take apart?” God asks, rubbing millions of wet hands in anticipation. “And how shall we put things back together?”

I know I should volunteer but I have no idea where to start or what to do. “God,” I say, speaking against the thunder of boulders rolling by. “How can I help?”

“Good question,” God replies. I’m surprised. Usually, it’s God asking the good questions.

“Climb as high as you can, look across the valley, and find the place where earth meets sky. Then hold your thumb to the horizon and notice how your perception shifts.”

This is a trick I’ve done many times to shrink the size of an imposing moon, but always with ambivalence. I usually prefer an imposing moon and my own hazy beliefs about gravity and the relative size of things.

“I don’t want to do that,” I say to God. “Any other suggestions?”

“Sure,” God shrugs. “Do what you need to do. Take the moon home for all I care. I’ve made a million moons and there are more to come. They will always agitate the water until it turns into wine.”

Uprooted trees float by, lodge, and bend the current. I wade into icy shallows, kick debris off the fence, and watch the current take it away. God shows up in bib waders. I wonder if the old guy is foolish enough to try and fish. He has worms and sinkers. I shake my head. He grins a sloppy, open-mouthed grin.

God’s first suggestion comes back to mind, and I realize elevation is not a bad thing. I pack the guitar and prepare to begin this last ascent. I’ll not lift my thumb to the horizon, though, because perception doesn’t change the order of things. Instead, I will harken to Mother Mary’s wisdom and let it be.

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.