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.

Who’s to Say What Starlight Might Do to the Skin?

Yesterday, I was looking for something in one of our outbuildings but within seconds, I’d forgotten what I was looking for. Our sheds reverberate with such potential that I can’t go in and come back out the same person. Touching the chaos causes a quickening; stacks of windows become greenhouse walls; slightly-damaged doors open to somewhere nice; a child pounds joyously on the drum set; strewn with straw, the stall in the corner protects a menagerie awaiting the ark; futons offer rest (or shelving); saw blades are sharpened; the woodstove is hooked up so I can cook in an emergency; empty frames and canvases are masterpieces hung in a gallery where antiques are tastefully displayed, and the scraps of angular metal have been welded into wings.

Our buildings are all named: Yoga Studio, Bug Barn, Playhouse, Solar Shed, Old Garage, Eva House, Lean-to, River Cabin, and of course, the decrepit and dangerous Contemplation Corner. The names reflect aspirations, not content. The structures are salvage yards and sanctuaries filled with failures awaiting transformation.

“God,” I said. “Proportionally, I bet I have as much broken and discarded stuff as you do.”

“Well, hello there, Junior,” God drawled. He’d materialized beside a flat-tired trailer, chewing a blade of grass with studied nonchalance. His thumbs were hooked on the pockets of dirty overalls. “That’s not exactly what I’d call news.”

“Could you get any more stereotypic?” I asked. God shrugged and faded. I squinted into the neon orange sunset and began walking home.

I am chronically derailed by the allure of what could be, and I blame God for this. It takes resources and patience to repurpose the wrongheaded or rejected. There are days I long for everything to burn to the ground; for fire to devour the bulging collections of oddities and unlikely visions; for extreme heat to purify my remaining days.

“Tidiness does not ensure wisdom,” God said, in the voice of a patient teacher. She was resting in a rainbow-colored hammock hung between two thorny crabapple trees. “I found this hammock under a pile of flat soccer balls,” she added. “I like it.” She was wearing a sundress from the ragbag and had tipped one of my straw hats over her face.

“It’s getting dark,” I said to the spectacle that was God. “You may not need that hat.”

 “Maybe,” she agreed, throwing one unprotected, delicate arm over her head. “But who’s to say what starlight might do to the skin?”  I knew she was making fun of me.

“You’re right,” I said, offering her a sweater. “Who’s to say what starlight might do to the skin?”

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.

Lies

Sometimes, like right now, mocking, sarcastic words get in my head, and I write them down and imagine going viral. But then I hit delete hoping to be left wordless and alone. Words are the vehicle of vanity, triviality, and lies. There has to be something true beyond words.

In daydreams, I stare steadily into the eyes of the current Russian dictator, our own recent dictator-in-waiting, Brazil’s and Britain’s buffoons; I imagine having the depth of soul to crack their stony defenses and open some tiny pocket of humanity and compassion inside them. Their grotesque, malignant egos melt away and flocks of bluebirds and goldfinches are freed from within, winging their way to freedom. Cue: Julie Andrews singing “The Hills are Alive…”

O.K., I’ll admit it. What I actually imagine is vultures pecking their eyes out while I hold them frozen in place with a magic spell. Then I smash their skulls on rocks. I… There’s a disturbance to my left. I hold up my hand. “Not now,” I say, turning to God, who always stops by midsentence. “I’m on a confessional roll.”

“You certainly are,” God says, as she multiplies and divides. She’s heavy with child. With children. She’s heavy with hope and courage. She’s heavy with bombs. She’s swallowed the detonators; the bombs will explode, and today, like every single day on this blessed earth, she will die a hundred thousand deaths. And in this fragmented, impossible way, God, too, will go viral.

“Come with me,” God says. I back up, shaking my head.

“Where?” I ask. “Nirvana? The life I deserve next? The cross? The front lines? The back alleys?  The grave?”

“Yes,” God says. “Come.”

I take a reluctant step. Then another. It’s rocky terrain. I stumble. I get up and examine my scrapes and bruises. I hurry toward the fleeting purple robe in my pointy shoes. The bridge across the icy stream has been destroyed. I try to leap across, but I slip and fall in. I think I’ve sprained my ankle. I’m wet, cold, hungry, disabled, lost, afraid, and angry. I’m a refugee, hunted prey, weakened by age and a soft life. “Stop!” I shout at God. “You’ve made your point.”

“I did?” God asks, in disbelief. “I wasn’t aware I had a point.”

“Not funny,” I say, rubbing my frozen hands together.

“Agreed,” God says. “Not funny.”

Pick-up Truck

At the present moment, I readily admit I’d rather spend my time shopping online for a reliable used pick-up than hang out with God. Existentially, I know I’m not alone in this preference.

To be clear, I don’t mean just any pick-up. I want a humble, road-worthy little pick-up that will take me anywhere I want to go. Sadly, these are rare. In our current culture, driving a small, fuel-efficient pick-up has become a direct threat to one’s sense of superiority, a signal of submission to bigger trucks, a failure to flaunt one’s flagrant, entitled use of all things petroleum.

And I don’t mean I’m avoiding just any God. If I could find a God who would answer my prayers for a dependable rig, that would be one thing. But the God who shows up most of the time rides shotgun without regard for vehicular prestige or utility. Of course, there are times I like driving around with a good shotgun-riding God. But other times, I want a God who will take the wheel and get me what I want right now. And I want it sanctified, guilt-free, and easy; a blessing from a God who bestows blessings on those who deserve them. Like me.

If I had a little pick-up, I could buy big things and haul them around. I could load up furniture I no longer like and get rid of it. I could throw a sleeping bag in the back, drive anywhere I fancied, and take care of myself. I could escape into thingness, dislocation, and the illusion of having the right-of-way. I even imagine finding an offramp that turns me and my pickup around to give us another run at life.

If I had a God who would agree to be my Security Detail, my Bouncer, my Getter and Doer—a God I could prop in the corner to scare away the heathens and inferiors, wouldn’t that be nice? If I think of it that way, I could be God’s God.

“I don’t need a God,” God informs me in a gruff voice intended to disguise amusement. I’m neither startled nor dismayed. I grin sheepishly, my mind caught in the cookie jar of fantasized omnipotence.

“Uh, hi God,” I say. “Good thing you dropped by. It was getting a little crazy in here.”

“No worries,” God says. “There’s a pandemic of crazy going on. How about we quarantine together? I’ve got a couple of ventilators if we need them.”

“Sounds good,” I say. “I’ve got reams of bamboo toilet paper.”  Shotgun God slaps his thigh. Bouncer God lets people in. Cardboard God starts a fire, and I stir the cauldron of soup and feed the sourdough starter some nice, fresh flour.

The Meek

“Here’s the question,” I said to God. “Why would the meek even want to inherit the earth? After the unmeek are finished pillaging, what’ll be left anyway?”

Three distinct snow devils twirled by, and then a vicious wind blew the remnants of the last storm across the garden, blurring my view. The weather patterns have begun to express earth’s outrage at its tormentors. The meek stand at the far end of the long arc of justice and there’s no pot of gold awaiting. Only diminishment and misery.

“Interesting question,” God said. “Could I get a couple of scrambled eggs? The brown, free-range ones, if you please.”

“Why?” I asked. “What’s the point? You’re not hungry.”

God shrugged and made his own eggs.

And here’s another interesting question,” I said with some irritation. “Why is nature so exquisite? Elephants. Apple trees. Caterpillars. Orchids. Translucent baby mice, huddled in their circle of pink, bones so tiny they could be eyelashes. Wild skies. Bengal tigers. Wheat fields before harvest. Fire. Ice.” I paused, caught up in the complexity and splendor of it all. Then added, “and why are humans so destructive?”

God ate his eggs, nodding and smacking his lips. “These eggs were fertilized,” he said. “Circle of life and all that. Tasty. But this toast is questionable. I think your flour has gone bad, and I think I’d like some ice cream.”

I sighed. The wind had died down. The air was clean, my vision unimpeded, my flour rancid, my questions mostly unanswered, and for some inexplicable reason, my soul was at peace. A cold snap was rolling in, but we had enough wood. I vowed to have more faith next time and buy less flour. But I bake a lot of bread.

“Survival is a complicated, temporary equation, isn’t it?” I asked God as he zipped his down coat, wrapped his neck with a wool scarf, and pulled his rabbit fur hat down tight. I didn’t expect him to answer, but he did.

“Yes and no,” he said. “On one side are the essentials: Compassion. Humility. Sacrifice. On the other, well, you figure that out.” He took a long lick of what appeared to be licorice ice cream and added, “It may involve delight.” Then he slipped out the door to the west where joyous and majestic mountains rose to greet him. There were snowshoes strapped to his back.

The Harder Truths

“God,” I lamented. “It’s seriously cold and I’m sad.”  My old friend had died in the night, brave and private in his decline. I rubbed my hands together, trying to warm them. God watched me, face impassive. I continued. “You know I hate being cold.” I was feeling sorry for myself. Too many losses. Too much grief. Deep freeze cold makes me insecure, achy, and painfully aware of mortality.

God didn’t seem inclined to do anything useful, so I got a blanket. She watched as I draped it over my chest and wrapped my feet. Then she said, “Most of you secretly want your mommies when you’re cold, hungry, frightened, or sad, don’t you?”

This seemed less than kind. I glared. Said nothing. God went on. “But not your real mommy. You want an imaginary celestial being who understands how hard things are. Someone to fawn over you, feed you, assure you of your incredible worth, make false promises, and tuck you in, safe and sound, every night.”

I wasn’t enjoying these revelations, and the blanket wasn’t helping much. I shivered and looked away. God continued. “Oh, I know you sometimes arrange to be tucked in by surrogates, but even if they give you warm milk, dim the lights, or stay and snuggle, they aren’t what you long for. They can’t save you from yourself.”

Why on earth was God saying such things? I’m not all that demanding. I don’t think I long to be taken care of—at least not all the time. Is a blanket too much to ask? Overall, I’m relatively independent, nearly a prepper, minus the guns. I have two outhouses, a pantry, solar panels, wood stove, tons of rice, and an attitude.

God sat big in the middle of my brain. I sat uneasy in the presence of this God, apparently determined to say things I didn’t want to hear.

“Being grown-up means you put yourself to bed at night.” God said, as if ending a sermon or an inspirational talk.

I was not inspired. “No,” I wailed. “You’re wrong. You’re there. I know you are. And there are others. The ancestors. The nymphs and gnomes, the weak and strong. My beloved. My children and the children in such despair. Such need. They all go to bed with me. And we sleep. And we wake up. And we hope. And we believe as best we can.” I made these shaky declarations between ragged breaths, my hands fisted, ready to slug it out.

God took the fists and blew warm breath on them as they unclenched. I looked up and saw that God was crying, too. We flung our arms around each other and let the tears drip into the vast and rising darkness where the souls of the dearly departed wait to tuck us in with a strange and certain warmth.