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.”

Evicted

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I’m sad to report that God is no longer living in our basement. He’s been incarcerated again. We were gearing up to evict him anyway, but he saved us the trouble. Harsh words. Incarceration. Eviction. Common words, jagged and judgmental, with a false finality that lets us think we can wash our hands of the subspecies we do this to. At least until God jumps in and goes down with them.

It seems to me that God could choose a more desirable group to identify with—but no, he has to do it the hard way. He crawls into the cage, meekly accepting severe limits on his dignity and freedom. On the outside, we sigh with relief, hoping he’ll learn his lesson.

I have to deal with our abruptly vacated basement. The residue of God lingers on everything I touch as I pack up the possibilities and promises left behind. The walls have changed from light green to mud brown. The windows have sunk so low they no longer allow in any light. All the air has been breathed at least three times, and I find somber warnings tucked in every crevice.

“God,” I say in a resigned voice. “Oh, God.” I don’t expect an answer and get none, but I keep up my end of the conversation anyway. “You found shelter here, but it didn’t hold, did it? You needed something stronger. Something deeper than a basement. Something with fewer doors.” I pause, but then admit, “I’m very angry at you. This was a pointless exercise in fear. Mutually-assured failure.”

I go into the bedroom. The closet is stuffed with the things God loved the most, but everything is twisted now. Nothing holds the shape of hope or love. Each item disintegrates with my touch, and little demons scamper like spiders from the joints and ligaments of my dismembered God. I have to sit down for a while. All the blood has drained from my day to day illusions.

Excuses come to me like angels. They fan my face and bring filtered water. This is what I need to continue.

In the kitchen, I find sprouting potatoes and moldy carrots, food from the Food Bank, and flavored coffee–so many artificial additives and outdated beliefs that most things cooked here would be toxic. My own addictions parade around, proud and petty, and like God, I am powerless to rise above the fray.

That phrase Rise above the fray grows legs. Arms. Becomes a troupe of hair-sprayed dancers singing a wicked little song. “Above the fray, above the fray, she thinks she should live above the fray.” I plug my ears and hang my head, immobilized by this damning chorus.

“Well, holy shit!” God says as he appears and shoos away the frolicking vixens. “Good thing I stopped by for the final inspection.”

I gasp. God winks. The dancers dissipate, their giggling refrain the last thing to fade.

“Gotta go,” God says. The hand he offers is bruised, with dirty fingernails, greasy knuckles, and a missing finger. We shake, and he’s gone.

On the counter, I find a hastily scrawled note. It says, “Please forward any mail that comes for me. My permanent address is The Fray.”

“Okay, sweetheart,” I shout to my evicted God. “You’re a better man than I.” And I laugh at my little joke as I scrub the tub. That’s one of my jobs—to lighten the mood while God faces the music for me. I’m pretty good at it. Walruses, sunsets, hummingbirds, and small children are better, but I’m not half-bad.

Risk Assessment

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Sometimes, God makes it look like prayer actually works. Other times, the apparent anarchy of the universe leaks through every layer of my consciousness, and it seems more productive to praise the wind and sky, the stones and soil–more logical to buy a lottery ticket than meekly ask about the right way forward. But then, things happen. Like when God stopped by Sunday evening with eroded teeth and a need for housing.

“First things first,” God said. “I’m a felon.” His hands were shaking a little. “I’ll understand if it’s beyond you to give me shelter.” He went on to explain that a church on the edge of town was praying he’d find a place, so if this didn’t work, that was okay. The right place would appear.

I resented this. It felt like a conspiracy. Who was this, really? God? The Devil? A broken human, standing in? The prayers of the people pelted me like driving rain. I was soaked in a matter of minutes, chilled to the bone, indignant.

“So, ahhh.” I said, stalling. “References?” God provided phone numbers.

“Children?”

God ducked his head. There were tears. He said “Yes, long story. They won’t be living here with me. I’ve gotta stabilize. Find a place.”

A combination of cologne and cigarette smell oozed from his clothing.

“Do you smoke?” I asked, looking for an easy out.

“Yes, but only outside. One thing at a time, y’know?”

It’s a terrible thing when God drapes himself in the needs of the world and crowds in alongside a regular day. Maybe this is why I keep my days so full–brimming with quirks, needs, fears, and imagined emergencies. Maybe, too, this is why I keep myself surrounded with the square footage I call home.

But way deep inside, I suspect there’s no such thing. We make up the idea of home, but it’s fleeting, easily blown away in a driving wind, swept downstream in the flood, or swallowed when the earth convulses. God and I often sit by the fire in my cozy living room and contemplate such things. When she’s like that, I’m happy and warm. When he’s like this—dependent, defenseless–I recoil.

My son-in-law offers a kind word and at least a dollar to every shady-looking street person who approaches him. Even some who don’t. He shakes hands. I’ve watched this many times, mentally making excuses for myself and my judgments. He’s strong and quick. I’m old and vulnerable. I shrink back.

But this time, I rally. A part of me I often ignore knows this: We’re meant to body surf on waves of compassion, not hole up with our cronies or shout clever slogans from behind police barriers. We’ve got to risk being used, bruised, fooled, and foiled.

“Okay, God,” I said. “I’ll call some references.” He nodded and left without pleading. I like that in a needy person.

The references were glowing. A parole officer, respectfully noting how hard these guys try. How little they have to work with. A business person, willing to crawl out on a limb. And me. Gullible? Maybe. But hell. What’s there to lose?

I’ve rented the basement to God. We’ll see how that works out.

Slow Awakenings

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“You awake?” I ask God. We got home very late. Time zone hopping is hard for me. I assume God doesn’t love it either, but I want to talk through my disorientation. Maybe with a cup of strong coffee, I can rouse the sleeping giant.

Our travels took us to cities cluttered with Homo sapiens arrayed in colors and shapes one sees less frequently in Montana. Beautiful, disturbing fractals–repeating patterns of hope, defiance, and despair. God on stage. God embodied. God black. God white. God with a face no one could love. I was reminded that God is, by definition, homeless. Such exposures can be unsettling. My usual world is small. My town, smaller.

Here on the rising river, God groans and pulls the alfalfa field over his shoulders, a shimmering quilt, greening as I watch. A red-winged blackbird lands on the garden fence. Then a robin. The boulders of winter have been rolled away, leaving the tomb empty again. The eyes of God are bleary, the breath of God questionable. The garments of night are crumpled at the edge of the riverbed–riffraff to contain spring runoffs and preserve riparian areas essential to survival.

In the natural order of things named God, I catch my breath and await further instructions. God yawns and rolls over. The hills pillow his sleepy head, and he gives me a nonchalant wave before snuggling back in. Generally, I don’t like being ignored, but this morning, I can tolerate the slow awakenings. I am growing more patient as my years dwindle and my soul thins out. Reality has become more translucent. When I really concentrate, I catch glimpses of the beyond where my thin bones and thick arteries won’t matter anymore.

Closer in, everything seems to matter. There are hills to die on, but I don’t know which ones. This is why I wish God would wake up. The fight to survive winter is over, but the wrong-headed weeds of early spring romp through my dreams—nasty little gargoyles grinning and drinking while I stand in the rain, chilled and uncertain. Exactly which battles should I wage, God? And how will I know if I win?

God snorts in his sleep. Likely, he’s dreaming gargoyles too. In the underworld, they’re everywhere.