Mercy

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A confused Canadian Muslim wants to go home after veering into a nightmare that hasn’t ended yet. He wandered off to Syria to fight his version of the enemy. We’ve got him now, somewhere off some coast, in solitary confinement. He admitted to having thoughts of suicide.

Soon, if certain people have their way, there will be women in Alabama with unwanted pregnancies. These women, too, will be having thoughts of suicide. And when God was living in our basement, after he started using meth again—I’d be willing to  bet suicide occurred to him as well.

Our house is made mostly of trees that died in a forest fire but were not consumed. We peeled the scorched bark and ran them through a sawmill, creating slabs and beams, trim and studs, enormous posts, and artistic pieces good only for admiring. Our house makes a lot of noise. It cracks and pops like an arthritic skeleton. It scares me. Impermanence. Sounds from the dead as they twist, protesting their static existence. Once they were proud Douglas fir trees, drinking rain, basking in sun, rooted. Now, they hold the frame. They are flammable shelter. They are already dead, but even so, I wonder if they wish for transformation into smoke and ash.

“They do,” God said, confirming what I already knew. “I assure you, they do.”

“Some days, I don’t think I can stand the guilty anymore,” I said, touching one of the larger, smoother posts. God nodded, but said nothing. I blathered on. “Some days, I am afraid of fire. Other days, dry rot. Other days, mold. And I tell myself I deserve whatever happens to this house. This land. This earth.” God listened, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. This is always unnerving.

“But no one deserves anything, right God?” I thought of men and women deprived of basic freedom. Their bodies legislated, their mangled souls desperate. Penitent. Defiant. We are all once-burned trees. Waiting. Uncertain of how to go on.

“Walk with me,” God said. “Let’s go to the river.”

We sat on a fallen cottonwood, watching the muddy water. God was quiet for a while, but then said, “You know what you need? You need mercy.” I teared up. God went on. “Mercy is beyond forgiveness. Beyond fairness. Beyond sympathy. Entwined with justice. This is what you need. Mercy.” God paused to make sure I was listening.  “And you know I’m willing. I’m always willing.”

I felt a rush of relief, but it was quickly followed by indignation. I have a house and a truck and a savings account. Mercy? Who wants to be in need of mercy? “You do,” the cottonwood said as it continued its descent. “You do.”

Taxes

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God and I stayed up really late last night, watching pretty much anything we could get on regular TV. Except we avoided the news, or anything like the news. Being both omniscient and omnipresent, God has a harder time avoiding current events than I do, but we colluded as best we could. I ate left-over soup. God wasn’t hungry.

God stretched out on the loveseat, and I got my yoga mat, intending to do a few sit-ups during advertisements. The TV droned on.

“What’s on your mind?” God asked.

Nothing,” I said. “Why do you think we’re watching Big Bang reruns? Just call me Empty Mind. Checked Out. Clueless. In fact, let’s not talk right now.”

“Okay,” God said. The TV droned on. God got another pillow and dozed. I turned the lights down low and watched her instead of the TV for a while.

“What’re we going to do?” I silently asked the sleeping God. She was so beautiful. The steady rise and fall of her chest, the perfection of her eyebrows, her out-breath filling the room with a wild mixture of sage and lilac, animal musk, homelessness, and newly-minted money.

My human condition crept into the room, and settled beside me. I tried to slap it away and just watch God at rest, but it snuggled up, greedy, ugly, lazy, mortal, needy, vengeful, and as afraid as ever.

Look,” I whispered to it. “What if we could rest like that?”

My human condition gave me a sideways glance. Almost a dare. Then it eased itself alongside God and went to sleep. I curled up fetal on the floor. The TV flickered, grabbing at my attention like it was for sale. Which it is. Everything is for sale. We all have our price. Except God. Some may not realize this, but you can’t buy God off. And God really isn’t into tax breaks that hurt the poor. With God, it’s more of an all or nothing kind of thing. But she’s never believed in trickle down economics. Never.

God stirred. “Rough week,” she said sleepily. “C’mere.”

My human condition had sprawled itself into all the available space. The loveseat looked uncomfortable to say the least, and I was about to refuse, but God had opened her eyes. I can never resist those deep pools of unspeakable welcome.

So I awkwardly squeezed in, between my human condition and God. In the tangle of all those urges, elbows, and defeats, God found my hand. “Tomorrow, do what you can do,” she said. “Tonight, rest.”

“But that’s the problem,” I said, already drowsy. “I don’t know what to do.” Then I slept. And now she’s gone. And my human condition is awake, demanding breakfast. I’m struggling to be hospitable.

“That’s it,” I hear from the corner. I make more toast and watch the snow drift down.

Storm

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A thousand pieces of God fell from a darkened sky. I ran to put out buckets and barrels, stuck out my tongue, waved my arms in greeting.

“Hello, hello, liquid God,” I shouted, so happy to have such a visit.

“Hello yourself, little fool,” God shouted back. The blessings rained down hard. They hit me and stung. I grabbed my impervious jacket, with the loose hood, and ran for shelter. I ran and ran, soaked to the bone wherever the jacket didn’t cover.

“What’s this?” I thought angrily. God was exploding around me. Drenching the little planet in snarling, dangerous blessings. Lightening ripped the sky. Trees released the younger leaves and they flew to their deaths in glorious waves of green. “Good-bye, good-bye,” they sang, the harmonies haunting, perhaps unaware they were soon to disintegrate. Perhaps not.

Blessings plastered the west side of the new house, and began to take root in the faulty, shrunken siding, originally meant to exclude such events. Before my eyes, moss, mold, mildew. Before my eyes, infestations of everything wrong with the world. Before my eyes, the drowning began.

“Stop it,” I screamed to God. “You don’t know what you’re doing. We can’t swim in this. It’s too deep.”

God seemed to relent. The lifejacket was a large broken branch that floated in the torrent of blessings. I clung to it and drifted along in the river of time, so frightened, so cold.

“You can let go, you know,” God said, quietly. “You’re going to get bruised hanging on like that.”

“Get away from me,” I said, undone, filled with disbelief.

The blessings were too sharp. Too heavy. I had gashes in my chest, and I suspected I’d broken a rib or two. It was painful to breathe. It seemed I was not among the chosen after all. Luxury liners floated by, filled with fancy people, beautiful people, gorging themselves on delicacies I couldn’t even pronounce. Their sea gleamed golden as they sailed into a fractured horizon.

“You can let go,” God said again. “Sweetheart, listen. You can let go.”

Allah’s Will

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Some people wear tight underwear on purpose. It doesn’t slide around as much, and certain appendages are less likely to droop, sway, wobble, or escape. But through the eons, God, the amazing artist has tinkered with the cosmos, including the design of the human body, so maybe it’s just the way it’s supposed to be for now. Therefore, are bodily interferences and management strategies a violation of God’s will? Like tight underwear? Or sexy underwear, or decidedly unsexy underwear? Or underwear itself? If those ancient Jewish authors got it right, Yahweh wasn’t all that impressed with fig leaves.

My mind wanders to tattoos and piercing. Spandex and Lasik. Obesity and anorexia. Facelifts and Viagra. To the death penalty and compassionate assistance when someone is ready to die. Birth control and abortion. Driving while tired, jogging in smog. Bikinis and burkas. Stents and suppositories. Aren’t we humans something else? We replace hips, drug ourselves silly, elevate or depress our moods, and bleach our teeth to neon white. We can prolong “life” with machines, almost indefinitely. Who’s to say how much fussing, prolonging, shortening, fattening, thinning, covering or uncovering is God’s will?

Our lives and bodies are gifts. I close my eyes, cross my legs, focus on breathing, and ask the Giver about gift management. The Giver wraps her arms around her enormous belly and winks. She’s always available, but always giving birth. I tiptoe around and watch.

I open my eyes and see the branches of the plum tree swaying under the weight of a scolding blackbird. Gifts. I see the onions and the peas growing. I see the river roaring by. Gifts. I know I need to pull weeds and water the garden. Gifts that need my attention. Gifts that I treasure or neglect.

It occurs to me that once I’ve given my beloved a gift, it’s his–to use or not use. To paint, hang, feed, cover or uncover, play with, give away, store, or use up. I might be sad if he doesn’t say thanks, or doesn’t like the gift, but I do not take it back or control it. That would be incredibly rude.

And as I deepen into this inquiry, it occurs to me that I, myself, have given birth. Twice. And after it was given, I worked hard to give these new lives what they needed to survive, and what they needed to gradually assume the autonomy that distinguishes human life.

I know the river, gift that it is, could kill me without a second glance if I just waded in right now. I won’t be wading in anytime soon. My life is mine. Other people’s lives are theirs. My body is mine. Other people’s bodies are theirs. Gifts. I decorate, doodle, abuse, and elevate. I stretch, exercise, and pamper. I overeat, undereat, and forget to hydrate. I imbibe in limited quantities of dark beer.

Someday, I will die. I may have a say in how and when. I may not. We live, temporarily, in a risky universe, and then we move on. That’s how it is. That’s how it should be. The Giver takes a minute, between contractions, to squeeze my hand. The beauty of being breaks my heart. She understands, and makes room for me in her bed. The thunder is deafening, but I no longer need to hear.

Click Bait

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God came roaring up in his 4-wheel drive pick-up, skidded to a halt, slammed the door, and stomped up my newly-poured sidewalk. His hair was on fire. He scorched the lower branches of the chokecherry bushes before he flung open the front door. “Who d’ya think you are, you worthless pieceashit?” he shouted. “Your writing sucks. You can’t speak for me. I’m the Supreme Being. King. Ruler. God Almighty. I speak for My Self. You need to shut your damn trap.”

Something was deeply untrue. My throat tightened, but my disbelief saved me.

“Wrong turn,” I said.

“Like hell,” he yelled, coming for my throat.

I stood my ground, looked him in the eye, and said “Fake news.”

He screamed and writhed like the wicked witch, diluted to shadow.

“How’d you know? How’d you know?” He squealed a dramatic piggy squeal as he sank to the bottom of the inky nastiness at my feet.

I couldn’t explain how I knew any more than I could explain my aching stomach and pounding head. It hurt. Everything hurt. Lies and dark money. Hatred. Malignant neglect. Greed. Ignorance. Threats. Vicious attacks. Click bait. Click bait. Death bait. Hate bait. I named it. I stood with the wounded. I refused to strike back. That hurt too.

“Good work,” the real God whispered. I nodded in complete agreement. It was good work. Hard work. I could see that God had taken the brunt of the hit. She was still a little bent over.

“Why, oh why do you bother with us?” I asked, only half-sincere. “And where do you get the patience?”

“I can’t answer that, honey,” God said. “But you’ll know someday.” She was tired, but there was still a warm light in her eyes.

“Well, forgive me,” I said. “But I seriously doubt it.”

“Doubt’s good,” she said. “Compassion’s better.” Then she drifted to the porch, to my treasured collection of petrified wood. She chose one of my favorite pieces, ate it, and settled down among the beautiful fossils to rest.

“Nooooo,” I wailed. “Not that one. Not there.” But it was too late. She was gone.

Oh, I how I hate being human sometimes, swirling around in our ugly soup, hope against hope, kin against kin. We keep extracting, gorging, and making weapons. How are we going to fix this mess? Compassion hardly gets any clicks at all.

Brian Doyle–a tribute

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I almost knew Brian Doyle. It was a near miss, and a loss for me. He died in his sleep yesterday, taken out of his earthly body by a brain tumor discovered last fall, only weeks before we would’ve been introduced. I owe Brian Doyle this blog. I mean the whole enchilada, not just this one measly tribute.

Last summer, as you may remember, God suggested we (God and I) co-author some short pieces, and in a slightly addled state, I agreed. I wrote, and then emailed the pieces to sympathetic friends, acknowledging how strange they were. I usually cried at the end of each one–something that made them seem inexplicably authentic to me. But I wasn’t sure what else to do. Then my friend Marianne, in one of those great round-about ways, showed my work to someone who’d heard of Brian Doyle. This person read a couple of these little pieces, named them “parables,” and thought Brian Doyle, who had actually published such things, and might be a good connection for me–someone who might make me feel less alone.

So I kept writing, bought some Brian Doyle books, and found we were, indeed, soul siblings. He obviously had my same co-author, and an advanced, enviable writing style–endearing honesty, long runs of home-made adjectives, off-beat insights, joy, despair, grace, and goofiness. But it was too late. By the time I’d written a few more, Brian was very ill. I watched and listened from a distance, and decided to create this blog in his honor. I don’t think he ever knew, but I bet he does now, as his spirit-drenched molecules dance unhinged and free from his near-sightedness, bad back, and cancer. His last prayer/letter/poem included asking if God might let him come back as an otter. This is one way Brian and I are different. Coming back as an otter is not among my top ten preferences. But that’s okay. The commonality we likely all share is the sense that being human is a great privilege. Life is short, with sprinklings of wonder. But so much goes unanswered. So much potential, squandered.

It reminds me of the last lines of W.S. Merwin’s poem, Words from a Totem Animal:

Send me out into another life

lord because this one is growing faint

I do not think it goes all the way

Brian, you’ll make an awesome otter, if that’s how it goes. Our co-author may have even more spectacular plans for you, now that you’re floating in the Vast Mercy, wrapped in the Sunrise, swaddled in the Ferocious Lap of Love. I think I see you dazzling into points of light. I think I hear you laughing like a mad man. But for now, in our earthboundness, you’ll be greatly missed—even by strangers.

Paint

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I caught God in the basement messing around in my modest assortment of half-full cans of paint. Or at least I thought it was God. It was dark, but there was an eerie glow emanating from the far corner that both attracted and frightened me. That’s God in a nutshell.

“What do you think of my paint collection?” I asked hesitantly.

“I like it,” came the cheery response. “Color. Texture. Latex. Stains. Oil-based stuff. You’ve got it all, more or less.”

God’s approval is a boon anytime, but admiration for my near-hoarding of old paint—now that was spectacular. I was ecstatic.

“Some of it’s dried up, some’s moldy,” God added. God has X-ray vision, so I knew this was true. “And you have at least four cans of that ugly, dull orange. Looks like you tried mixing bad stuff. Never works.”

My ecstasy was waning as God’s appreciation became more selective.

“Yeah,” I said. “I was trying to get a mellow, warm orange.”

God laughed, stepped out of the shadows, and slapped me on the back.

“I like how hard you try,” God said. “But mellow orange will not happen anywhere near sage green. You know giving up can be as holy as stubbornly plowing forward, right?”

“Well.” I said. “Same to you. I’ve met some people who are way uglier than that paint. At least I can use the paint in the chicken house. What’re you going to do with those disgusting lumps of humanity? I’ve been trying to love them, somehow, a miniscule little bit, but the best I can do is pretend. They’re destructive, lazy, lying, self-righteous jerks. A serious waste of protoplasm. And because you already know this, I’ll just say it. I hate them.”

“Yup. I knew that,” God said. “Why are you trying to love them?”

I did a double-take. “Because, well. I guess because I think you want me to.”

God gave me a quizzical look, then began to fade artfully away, wavering like fumes above the seven cans of turpentine. With a soft kiss on the top of my head, God repeated “I like how hard you try.”

I felt deflated. Thwarted. I sat down on a five-gallon bucket of neutral gray to consider my next move. I didn’t want a passing grade in effort. I wanted excellent marks. Perfect 10s, 5 stars.

“You’ll take some failures with you to the grave,” God said. “I’ll meet you there.”