Hair

Human hair is fascinating. We’re not nearly as furry as our ancestors and cousins, but we still sprout the stuff. Left alone, it signals everything from how old you are to how well you slept last night. But of course, we don’t leave it alone. We cover it, color it, play with it, yank it out, let it sluff off, implant, extend, shave, curl, straighten; We cut it, dreadlock it, donate it, and occasionally douse it to kill off the lice.

We’re sometimes born bald. We sometimes die bald. I was yanked from the womb early with forceps that left my head badly misshapen. Fine tufts gradually grew in, and my hair was unremarkable for decades. But then God let cancer have a go at me, and the chemo stripped it all back off.

“What???” God says, emphatically.

“Yes, all of it. Legs, arms, eyebrows, privates…”

“I know what you mean, but ‘God let cancer have a go?’ C’mon. Is that really how you see it?”

“What other way is there?” Me, arms crossed. God, preening in the mirror.

I don’t want platitudes for an answer. In my limited view, if God is God, then that’s that. Good and evil might seem definable in the moment, but as time in our mortal bodies passes, clarity fades and boundaries blur. Any kind of loss, torture, crucifixion, or disease takes a terrible toll. But endings, unsettlings, baldings, and pain often provide the energy necessary for rebirth, joy, peace, and health.

“True,” God says. “But even that isn’t the whole story.”

“So, then what’s the whole story?” I ask. But I have a pretty good idea what God is going to say.

“There is no such thing as a whole story,” God says, with a grin larger than necessary. “The wholeness of the story is in the process. There are no tragic or happy endings, because there are no endings.”

“I knew you were going to say something impossible like that,” I say. “And you know they feel like endings, right?” I tip my head to the side and add, “At least you didn’t blame anyone.”

God touches my face, kisses my head, and nods. “Nice chatting, but I need to go now. I’ve got a hair appointment. Just a trim, but I’m thinking of adding strands of purple here and there.”

God is beautifully grey, but purple will be a nice addition. And as for me, my hair’s been more or less back for five years now. I’m into bleach and occasional blue, but I have tubes of red, green, pink, and turquoise at the ready. I like having choices, but–here’s a small confession—if I don’t like the outcomes, it’s nice to have God around to help me reconfigure.

Joy

“Hey God,” I said as I stared at two chairs I plan to transform. “Is there joy in magenta?” God was stretched out on the couch, reading an old New Yorker. He lowered the magazine.

“Come again?” He made a point of looking at me attentively.

“Joy,” I said. “What is it?” For a simple, three-letter word, joy is surprisingly agile and elusive. Sometimes, I get a rush of joy from certain pigments. Other times, everything clashes. I give thanks for primer. New canvases. Old chairs. Starting over.

God raised himself to one elbow. He’s long and thin today. “Honey, fragments of joy are visitations–temporary indwellings. The chemicals involved for temporal beings like you aren’t stable. In fact, the physical and spiritual are dangerously reactive.”

I’ve never like chemistry. I’d rather consider joy outside the realm of chemicals. But God was insistent and maybe a little worried.

“Unstable. Check it out.” He laid back down and feigned rapt interest in reading. When he treats me like that, I know I’m supposed to carry on.

Fine. I looked it up: Something that is dangerously reactive is in constant danger of polymerization, condensation or decomposition. It can also become self-reactive when stressed or under pressure. I was starting to relate. Stay with me, fellow chemistry-avoiders. I’ll simplify.

Polymerization involves small molecules that join together and become BIG molecules, causing heat and pressure. Yes. Greed and light. This can be modulated by catalysts and initiators—I know plenty of interpersonal catalysts and initiators–but it can get out of control. Boom. No joy. Inhibitors can be useful, if properly managed. But they can malfunction. They’re supposed to slow or prevent unwanted reactions, but they decline in power over time. They need to be kept chilled. We get lazy. Things happen.

Condensation involves molecules that join together to make a new substance (sounds kind of sexy). Byproducts might include water or some other simple substance, but the energy produced is sometimes more than predicted—more than can be handled. There can be fire, or serious ruptures. Jealousy. Hatred. And yes, joy—but hoarded or gone wrong.

And then there’s decomposition—well known to all of us aging into simpler forms. Even decomposition can release hazardous amounts of energy. “Some pure materials are so chemically unstable that they vigorously decompose at room temperatures by themselves.” Scan your social connections. Rings true, especially this past year.

Self-reactivity is even more painful. Explosions can occur from even small tremors—an insult, a hammer blow, elevated demands. Destructive reactivity. No joy.

“Ok,” I said, “So it’s risky. I get it.” Then I began applying the magenta to the corners of an overworked canvas. “Let’s just see what happens.” And from the far end of ultraviolet, where things are no longer visible to the naked eye, God smiled and said, “Yes, let’s.”

Managing Distractions

(Illustration from my book “When Baby Corporations Come To Play”)

During the next 22 minutes, I hereby resolve to sit in a soft purple chair facing out into my personal chaos and not move anything but my fingers. Warily, my body will relax; my thoughts will filter through a maze of urges, accusations, poetic phrases, and old jokes. Most likely, I will revisit yesterday’s indignations instead of remembering recent joys.

God will appear in fits and starts. She’s as subtle as the noisy microwave and the insistent hum of the cheap refrigerator I’m enduring for the sake of the planet. Or so I say.

I let myself love the pinkening of the sky, even though the pink is fleeting, and my love will go mostly unrequited. The sky does not have time to love me back for very long.

God moves freely around the room. She is interested in the ways lime green and pumpkin orange can change a life for the better. So am I. She seems fascinated with the ease and strength of torque screws, the ticking of old-fashioned clocks, the dangerous games people play in their minds, and the lyrics. And I do mean The Lyrics. The One Song. Sometimes, I sing along but I make up my own words. It’s safer that way.

At heart, God is a rapper. She claims she’s still writing relevant verses. I doubt it. What does she have to offer the gamers and the insistently ignorant? The magnificently greedy, the already generous? Or me, for that matter? And why do I think there should be a set of lines I can understand? As if that could save a single hair on my waning head.

Each minute is a minute unto itself. Round, perfect, weightless. I want to crawl into one and float away, but they burst like bubbles when I touch them. They take no prisoners, allow no passengers, and mercilessly disappear. All I can do is admire the flawless roundness, and shape myself to the circling earth, as if I, too, were a moment in time. Enough but empty. Complete but hungry. Irridescent, transparent—a shade of blue that only God can imagine.

It’s time to leave the soft purple chair and move into the falsely ordinary shards of the day. “Farewell,” I say to each of the 22 minutes, my voice tender and sad. The sky has given up on being pink, but God is still puttering around, admiring whatever she has in her hands as if nothing has slipped away. “Want to go for a walk?” she asks. I lift the skin on my face into a smile and look into her eyes. “Sure,” I say to the Eternal, the Great Intangible, the Path, the Lover, the Rapper, the Generator of the Splintered Now. “Sure,” I say, standing and ready. “Let’s walk.”

Insult to Injury

I often make lists of the many sins committed against me. Acts of omission or malice, blows landed, insults slung. It’s like anticomfort food. And to add to my misery, ailments regularly drape and infest my body. Some days, I hope for a temporary ceasefire between invading forces. Other days, all is lost.

“Despair is nothing new to the human condition,” God says. “But then, neither is joy.”

“Oh, you are so subtle, God.” I said with a snarl, thinking God was trying to cheer me up.

“I’m hungry,” God said. “Will you give me a scrap of food?” This was not what I’d expected, and I’d already put the breakfast things away. I ignored the request.

“I’m frightened,” God said. “I’m lonely. I’m in prison.” God looked misshapen. I backed away. He seemed deranged and dangerous.

“My village flooded. I have nothing left,” God said. I checked the locks on my doors and the passwords on my accounts.

“I’m so tired,” God said. “I walked all night.” I shook my head. God was filthy, and I’d just changed the sheets.

“My legs have been broken,” God said. “I can’t walk.” He tried to drag himself toward me, arm over arm. I turned my back and ran until I fell exhausted on rocky ground. God coalesced in the stratosphere, floated down like a feather, and circled his body around mine. My face burned with shame. “I can’t,” I said through clenched teeth and tried to kick him away. “I can’t fix you. Can’t fix all the broken places. Can’t stop coming apart. What do you want from me?”

“Oh baby,” God murmured as he rocked my resistant body. “I want joy…and maybe a bit of compassion now and then. The kind that gratitude generates. But mostly, joy.”

This seemed reasonable, but I couldn’t fend off the fog of helplessness thickening around me. It was blinding and cold. I thought this nicer, softer God would obliterate it for me, but instead, he looked worried. “Throw it off!” he said, with some urgency. “Throw it off now. Think. Where’d you hide that last bit of joy?”

“In the paint brushes,” I said, sitting up. “And that incredibly twisted driftwood. And the words. And that kiss.”

“Go,” God said. “Paint, wander, write, kiss. And be sure to light the fire. I’ve dried the kindling for you.” He pulled small sticks from under his robe.

Suddenly, more than anything, I needed to paint something purple. And gold. And forest green. But the world had grown too dark to see very well. I remembered a line from Frederick Douglass’s famous speech (What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?) It’s not light that we need, but fire. Artificial illumination would not do. I could only paint a true and joyous thing by enduring the flickering glow of fire. I took the kindling gratefully and kissed the Pathetic Old Thing on his wrinkled cheek as we turned ourselves toward the gathering storm.

Bubba

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The Honorable Hugeness Beyond Human Comprehension, Sacred Smallness Down Under, Journey That Never Ends, Fairy Dust That Clings. The Ultimate Lover, Thinker, Forgiver, and Doer. The One and Only Silence. Cacophony. Irritating Rash. Soother of Every Fear–God isn’t picky about names or even who believes and who doesn’t. You can’t prove God; you can’t disprove God. A that’s how God likes it—which makes me very crabby sometimes. But I live with it.

This Holy Energy—and the chats we have, the little tricks she plays—at a personal level, these are generally good. The synchronicities and coincidences tickle me. And yes, they also scare the Bejesus out of me. What if, what if, what if? A God so tiny? A God so enormous? A jokester, donkey, poet, physicist, an artist, a hungry dog? A neighbor, an enemy, the blight on the chokecherries? If you could manifest in any form, what would you choose? If you could speak in any voice, how would you speak? Smooth, seductive? Thunderous? Or in the muted voice of the powerless?

“All of the above,” God says. “I love multiple choice exams.”

“Are you ever happy, God?” I ask, changing the subject. “I mean, really happy?”

“Oh, sure,” God says. “How could anyone be God and not be happy? I’m happy a good deal of the time. But then, time is meaningless to me. So, yes. I’d say I’m happy. What would you say?”

This puts me on guard for some reason. I take a swig of my dark beer and consider drinking the whole thing for once. But I don’t.

“Well, Bubba,” I say, “Here’s the deal: Sometimes I think you hitchhike. I think that when mortals manage to be happy, or joyful, you ride the waves. You gobble it up. Expand, magnify, and revel. I think you’re a joy-a-holic.”

“Busted!!” God shouts. “Absolutely. Always. Forever. I loooooove it. Joy-a-holic! Wouldn’t that make a great tattoo? Maybe burned across the sky, hot orange and midnight blue– wide on the electromagnetic spectrum. Sound good?  Yes!” Sometimes God provides his own answers.

I shake my head as the Creator, the Big Belly Bubba Essence takes over the sky. Behind my closed eyes, in a secret place, God is heavily tattooed, circling Saturn, jubilant, erotic, irreverent. God is an untouchable ecstasy. If you’re brave enough to hang around and watch, beads of sweaty joy fall like stars, and you can put them in your pocket and take them home. But beware. They’ll burn through your defenses and put you on the street. They’ll blind you to the small differences between you and anyone else.

What’s left of this morning’s conversation? Three chickadees and a gaggle of ungainly turkeys pecking the soggy ground. They move with deliberation, wary of each other. Wary of the wind. But blissfully unaware of their indwelling grace. I envy their simplicity. They own this moment and nothing else.

DNA

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In many ways God and I have very little in common. The narrow gateway of our commonality is not the DNA I share with other humans, fruit flies, bananas, trees, or goats; not my uncertainties or my short journey in this limited body. And absolutely not my tendency to bite my thumb when I sense God is close. God doesn’t have thumbs. But sometimes, she borrows one and bites it while I write, just to demonstrate her solidarity. It’s a transparent solidarity. I slip my hand through and watch the world turn to fire. I am intrigued by the godness of fire as mass gives way to energy.

Often the godness around me is so dense I can hardly breathe. Billions of people seething and searching for the right ways to live their lives, afraid of all the wrong things. Even the stars are born and die, so what do we have to fear? One form godness takes is joy, a flower with roots that run deep in dark places. Another form of godness is suffering, and it will be with us until the end.

“Yes,” God says, affirming my pondering. “Maybe not DNA, but joy and suffering. Yes, these we have in common.”

“God,” I say. “I don’t always love it when you show up and agree with me.” I turn my gaze inward, where of course, I find God smiling between the strands that define who I think I am. I slide my consciousness back out, trying to think of other things. Deadlines. Vitamins. Bad travel conditions. Entropy. Anything but You-Know-Who.

“Okay,” God says. “Let’s play hide-and-seek. Shall I find you, or do you want to find me?”

“What does it matter?” I say. “It’s one and the same.”

God pretends to ring a bell. “Ding, ding, ding,” she says. “Folks, we have a winner.”

I can’t help but laugh. What a chump. I shrug. “Fine. So you’re here. What’ll it be today? Compassion? Sacrifice? Slippage? The mundane grip of reality? Painting sticks? Rearranging my rock collection? Maybe a small skirmish with the dark forces of hell and selfishness?”

God mimics my shrug. Then she leans over, examines my thumb, and kisses the bite marks away.

“All better,” she says, her voice tender and soothing. I stare at my thumb.

“Maybe,” I say, tears welling up. “But I don’t see the point. You know I’ll bite it again.”

“Exactly,” God says. “Exactly. Maybe that’s why I love you so much.”

A Message From Stone

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By arranging them just so, I can make rocks look like flowers from a distance. Or with a dab of acrylic paint, I can make them look like fish, fruit, or people. So many stunning rocks have come to me and told me their tumbling cracking coalescing stories. They’re always broken, but some have been reformed and smoothed. I don’t know if they long to reconnect to whatever lies beneath us. I don’t ask because I don’t want to answer that question myself. Rocks always look sure of themselves as they make their geologic journey back and forth from dirt. The lichen, wind, rain, and fire—these elemental forces usher them along—but I’m not so sure of myself and I don’t want these escorts.

Rocks are the bones of God, the repository of vital minerals and fleeting ideas. You’d think they’d be more permanent, but then God isn’t permanent. God just is. “Why?’ I ask God, as I curl my body around a very large river boulder “Why?” I ask again, touching the sharp edge of a crystal. “Why?” I ask a third time, a clear blue sapphire in the palm of my hand.

“Three questions, no answers,” God observes with an easy smile. God is an excellent listener. Less good with answers.

“Wow, you can count,” I say, glaring. I’ve been generally unhappy with God lately. “Did you see that news piece on Russia? The Orthodox believers think Putin is from God. This makes me sick.”

God nods, smiles, and says, “Me too. But you don’t have to go all the way to Russia to get a taste of that malarkey.”

There’s a pause. God repeats the word malarkey and starts laughing. I feel awkward, but then the willows start laughing, the evergreens start laughing, the mountains hold their bellies, gasping for air, but the air is laughing too. The absurdity of our teeny tiny human projections, distorted by fear, fueled by hatred, financed by greed—puny, grasping, hateful people called holy. Worshipped as if they can save us. The laughter is contagious. We are literally cracking up, coming apart, falling into the deep, soaring into the heavens. For this moment, I’m not angry. Not afraid. Not sad. I just am. I see my fractured image reflected in the lake of forever.

This is what I know: If you want to hear the voice of the Creator, fit your ear against a smooth stone. If you want to taste the goodness of the Universe, take a tiny pinch of soil and touch it to your tongue. And if you want to glimpse eternity, find some malarkey and laugh until you cry. Let your salty tears roll down and splash into the tide-torn heart of the surging, pulsing, laughing God.

Hide and Seek

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God and I were playing hide and seek in the pasture near the river where fallen cottonwoods and piles of brush add to the texture to the landscape. Here and there, boulders find a moment’s rest, nestled into tangled riparian roots. It’s remarkably green for August. God was having a lot more fun than I was, but that’s often the case.

“I see you,” God said. “You’re not even trying.” She looked bored.

I have a competitive streak. God knows this.

“Okay,” I said. “Keep your eyes closed longer.” I took a deep breath and let myself sink into my footprints, tugging them under with me as I disappeared. This is risky because without footprints you can no longer discern if you are coming or going, alive or dead. Not an easy place to hide. I could hear God counting.

“One thousand nineteen. One thousand twenty. Ready or not, here I come.” She sounded excited and happy. I shivered in the residue of nothingness. To distract myself, I imagined I was at a party, drinking free beer, making the mandatory small talk that confirms my membership in the community of those who still cast shadows when the sun is up. Then I told even the idea of my shadow to disappear.

Twigs snapped. Dry grasses crackled. The wind picked up, leaves rustled. I could feel the sunset gathering intensity. Violet and orange taunted my eyelids to spring open. A fledgling eagle screamed far overhead. Creatures from my worst dreams began to eat my limbs. God wasn’t playing fair, but this only made me more determined. I willed myself senseless, motionless, colder than absolute zero. I put my heart in dark water and pulled the last of the air out of my lungs. None of this was at all safe, but I was playing with a dangerous God. Playing for keeps. Playing to win.

“Hmmm,” I heard God mutter. “She’s getting the hang of this.”

A great longing took what was left of me and spread itself over the face of the earth, invisibly thin. I dissipated into the falling night, the soothing moon. It was over. I was gone.

“There you are, my little soldier,” God said, approvingly. “There you are. That was fun. Now it’s your turn. Count as high as you’d like.”

Piano

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God and I took a piano apart today. We had help. Even so, it didn’t go especially well. The carcass, keys, pedals, hammers–everything had been overrun by mice, so the smells were unpleasant. The rusted screws and bolts were unpleasant. The mouse nests were worse than unpleasant. But the conversation we had with the backbone of the piano—the tightly strung strings that make the music—that was worth it all. The intricate innards whispered otherworldly commentary every time we made a move. We salvaged the motherboard, serenaded by jangled synchronicities and disturbing harmonics.

Now we are resting. God is a broken, decrepit piano. I am a nymph with a sore back. God is a stone, gleaming among stones in the hot sun. I am a glass of clear water. God is dimming the sun, pulling clouds around in the sky. I’m old, longing for ice cream. God is a worry and a bother. I am a sweaty artist, a two-bit wordsmith. God is color and dirt. We are calm together.

“Ah, it is good to work hard and then rest, isn’t it?” God asks. “I like you this way.”

“What way?” I ask. “And anyway, aren’t you supposed to like me no matter what?”

God laughed. “Yeah. You got me there. But I mean, relaxed. Not anxious or angry. You spend so much time revved up. And I spend so much time reminding you that you’re wasting energy. You aren’t as good looking when you’re worried. Sometimes, you aren’t even nice.”

“But, but…” I sputtered. I knew it was true. In fact, there are days I like not being nice. There are times I’m happy to be a cynical hypocrite–driven, desperate, and nasty.

“It’s okay,” God said. “I get there myself occasionally.”

“I know,” I said, relieved and then stricken. “And at those times, you are REALLY not good looking.”

For a nano-second, I knew the magnitude of God’s misery even though it vastly exceeds human understanding. The writhing pain of God screams through eternity, collapsing galaxies in its wake. It’s the vicious emptiness of black holes, lonely dark matter avalanching through the space-time continuum. We carry only the tiniest portion of this desolation in our deepest bones. We have no choice. I have to remind myself it is an honor.

“It’s hard, but I try to love you,” I said to this pitiful face of God. It seemed a paltry offering, but it was all I had.

“I know,” God said, the face regaining some of the vibrant color that feeds my soul. “And it helps. Let’s go strum those piano strings again.”

It was hot, but we went back to the shed to touch the vibrating center of all things salvaged. All things sacred. In the end, there is only one song.

Feeding birds

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“Hey, God,” I said. “Should I feed the birds?”

“Say what?” God said, puzzled.

“Should I feed the birds? I mean like buy bird seed, put it in a feeder, fill it up, and feed them?”

“That is entirely up to you,” God said, gleaming bright yellow from the feathers of a goldfinch, scarlet from the blackbird wings. I remembered God’s hysterical laughter at the mating dance of the sandhill crane earlier this spring. Why would she not endorse the idea of bird-feeders? She obviously gets a kick out of birds.

“But should I?” I asked again. “I can afford bird feed. I could feed them and give them a place to splash around, too.”

“You sure could,” God said. “I’ve been doing it for eons. They like thistle seed. And they’re not that picky about where they splash around. They’re like little kids; they love puddles.”

“I don’t like thorns,” I said, frowning. “And I don’t like puddles. Mosquito breeding grounds.”

“Yes,” God said. “You aren’t a bird. Birds see things differently. You’re not a child anymore, either.”

“Sheesh,” I said. “I know that. Why do you have to point out the obvious instead of answering me directly?” This was becoming one of those exasperating conversations where the tables were soon to turn. I could feel it in my bones.

Sure enough, God said, “Excellent question. Why do I have to point out the obvious over and over? Why do I have to bend over backwards, forwards, sideways, up, down, and under? Why do I have to repeat myself ad infinitum? Why do you choose angst over joy? Why do you fear your mortality? Why do you hide in your greed? Why don’t you sing or dance or play more often?”

“I knew you’d do this to me. I ask a simple question, and you turn into a bird, and then get all defensive and blame me for not…”

“Not what?” God said, putting a big, oil-stained hand on my shoulder. The fingernails were atrocious. It was workaday God. “Not what?” he repeated.

I was stymied. I felt blamed and guilty but I couldn’t put my finger on why.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’m sad, God. And angry. It’s making me dull-witted.”

God laughed. “Basically, just remember this: It’s all chicken feed and beautiful brown eggs. Get out there and love the most obnoxious people you can find. Grab my hand and listen to their hatefulness with interest and compassion. Smile beatifically.”

It was my turn to say, “Say what?”

And we left it at that. I had lists to make. Weeds to pull. A self to feel sorry for, and a country and world to feel sickened by. And God? Who knows? Probably busy forgiving someone. That’s my best guess.