When I was a child

Sandstone

When I was a child, I wandered the hills seeking treasure, searching for diamonds– settling for flint or jasper. I also saved sick and abandoned animals or stood watch as life ebbed away and their eyes dulled into death. The funerals were elaborate, with grass-lined cardboard coffins and all sorts of prayers offered up. Magpies, sparrows, kittens, and lambs. I knew God then as a kindly grandfather who, like me, stood watch from the clouds that rested on the shoulders of the nearby foothills. His hills. His feet. His world.

But now, God and I have a more complicated relationship. The magnitude of the cosmos has impressed itself on me, and the minuscule mass of quivering molecules cloaked in my skin are slowing down. People are dying in fires and floods. Children are mangled and hungry. When they wander, they’re not looking for pretty rocks. They’re looking for food.

I raise my fist in God’s face, as if there is a God, as if there is a way. And God flinches. She is traumatized, bleeding, bruised…and regal. She is hungry, angry, scorched, and stubbornly vital. “You can’t scare me,” she says, after regaining her composure. “You can’t scare me.”

But in my heart, I know I can. And I’m sorry. I am so, so, sorry. God, I am so sorry. Universe, I am so sorry.

God puts her knife down. I throw my arms around her. The pettiness of my worries shames me. I promise to do better. To make donations. To live simply. To march. To express my indignation. I will reduce the number of hours I spend hating. Hating. Hating. But I can’t actually do this. I am weak. I have to ask for help.

“Um, God,” I begin. “I have a compost bucket for a heart.”

“I know,” she says. “Compost is good. It breaks down. Rest. Stay warm. Try to love people a little better.”

“I already do that,” I say, disappointed. I was looking for diamonds, not the common stuff of existence.

“Flint and jasper, petrified wood. Quartz, granite, even coal,” God says, and then adds, in a knowing voice, “Sandstone.”

And miraculously, I see it. Sandstone. With lichen growing, just the right colors of orange and green. Yellow and gold. So fragile. So irregular in its jagged perfection. So contrite. Diamonds are cold and hard, slicing deep wounds in the open hand of God. Sandstone yields and crumbles. I am sandstone, soon to become a granular part of this sweet and tiny earth. With help from my broken friend, I can choose the lower places. It makes me a little nervous, but if God can flinch and recover, so can I.

A Dog in the Fight

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God and I don’t usually get into theological discussions, but recent claims on Facebook—that we shouldn’t worry because GOD IS IN CONTROL—forced me to bring this up. “Are humans autonomous?” I asked God.

“Yes,” God answered, looking a little wary. “It’s a package deal. Comes with consciousness.”

“So when people say ‘You, Oh Most Amazing, Most Loving, Most Majestic Creator, YOU are in control’…”

God interrupted. “They’re wrong. You know I’m the biggest forgiver you could ever hope to meet, but I’m not a control freak. I made it possible for you to love each other and tend the earth responsibly. To save things and make things better. That’s my contribution.”

“So, um, you’re not going to do it for us? You’re not going to intervene? Even if we’re sinking like bags of rocks? Acting worse than pigs? Lying, torturing and starving each other?”

“Right. But you always have the option to save yourselves.”

“How?”

God looked impatient. Maybe even a little angry. “Haven’t I made this painfully clear?”

“You mean like, um, love our neighbors? Give our lives for our enemies? Share? Tell the truth? Ten Commandments. Golden Rule. All that?” I was stammering.

“Exactly. Do you watch the news at all? Do you think, even for a minute, I don’t LOVE the Rohingya? That I’m not starving with the 870 million who are hungry right now? Do you think it was ME who built nuclear bombs? You think I profit from gun sales? C’mon.”

I looked away. God ranted on. “You can’t be serious. Me, in control? What have you been smoking?”

I think God thought this was funny. I wasn’t laughing. God continued. “Okay, I’ll admit, I hold out hope that you’ll do my bidding, but I realize it’s damn hard to give all that you have to the poor, forgive everyone, stop building walls, stop amassing riches, stop hoarding weapons, and just hang out with me in the cloud of unknowing, unselfish, unbearable love.”

“But, God, aren’t you on my side?” I whined. This was my co-author, my sometimes gentle friend, cutting me no slack.

“No,” God said in a big voice. “No. No sides. Your football games? Your stunningly stupid, shortsighted selfishness? Your empire-building? Your big winners and dead losers? No. I have no dogs in your fights. No. NONE.”

God took a deep breath which led to a coughing fit due to the smoky air. I held still.

After some throat-clearing, God went on. “I do have one dog, though. She’s a rescue mutt. I call her Gracie. Look at those eyes.” God’s voice was playful and gruff. I looked. Huge brown eyes, liquid with love. Her fur was long and scruffy, her tail, wagging. God continued. “She’s not a fighter though. She’s a lover, aren’t you girl?” Gracie licked God’s hand. God leaned down and went nose to nose, soaking up some doggy kisses.

I waited. God’s head stayed down, but Gracie offered her paw, and we shook. She licked my hand. I threw a stick, she brought it back. I threw it again, she brought it back. One more time, she brought it back. And then they were gone and I was alone, but Gracie had left me a pile of sticks. Enough to last a lifetime.

Red Box

Red box

God and I are meandering down the alley. I’m on foot. God’s doing a high-wire act to make me laugh. There are crows, evidence of squirrels, and things discarded littering our way. Among the riffraff I find the redeemable. I offer thanks for the empty gift box flashing fancy red from a garbage can, and driftwood, smooth as skin, and seven or eight green apples, all bruised from the fall. I commune with the broken, hoping to catch a direct glimpse of my constant, often invisible, sometimes putrid companion who hides among the worst of it. The ways of God aren’t always pretty, safe, or easy. But I’ve learned to never, ever sanitize God. It causes a crippling loss of the sensations that make us human.

Today, it appears God wants to be silly, but shoes hanging by their laces from electrical lines don’t do much for me. Everything seems stupid. “Hey Goofball,” I venture. “Could you stop clowning around? I don’t want to laugh right now.” Honesty usually works well with the Holy Goofball. She can make her hide thicker than a crocodile’s. But this time, her skin is thin and she’s reactive.

“What makes you think this is for you?” she asks, voice sharp and petulant. “It isn’t always about you.” I look around. Lilac bushes are wilting. Alley weeds transgress, ugly and aggressive. Dust and smoke swirl. And then I notice that a muttering woman with a Safeway shopping cart has turned toward us. Why’d she turn? It isn’t even a paved alley. But here she comes. Snarling. Incoherent. A small, vicious world pulled tight around her—she’s walled herself off from gentleness, reason, or even meaningful contact. She’s a one-winged bird, flapping low. The gravel impedes her progress, but even so, she’s steadily getting closer.

Unhinged people frighten me.

Of course, I know, you know, God is permanently, proudly, unhinged. An ever-present danger to my complacency. Ultimately, it’s always God pushing the shopping cart, arriving as requested. I often wonder why I ask. But this is irrelevant. The street lady comes for us all, requested or not.

She waits, scowling, while I meekly climb in. There’s room for my red box, the driftwood, and a few of the apples. I am adding to her burden, but I see no other option. This unflinching, castoff God shows me the way, holding a fractured mirror.

My real home is a borrowed wire cage, my shelter permeable, mostly imagined. I am wilting lilacs, aggressive weeds, swirling smoke and fine gray dust. I am the favored child of an unhinged God, waiting to see what will happen next.

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.

Awakenings

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Every morning I wake up before I want to, and the pleading begins. First, I plead with my mind to quit racing, bladder to back off, and feet to stop tingling. I beg the other distractions to have mercy and cease the agitation so I can go back to sleep. Usually, this does not work, so I turn my focus outward and fervently repeat the word please, but I’m not pleading with my mind or body anymore. I am pleading with the Other—the Out-there, the Collective, the Wonderment, the Real. I call her God. You don’t have to. Neither of us minds much about names.

Usually, I don’t feel pathetic, nor particularly hopeful. I don’t feel desperate (very often), nor do I feel humble. Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be anyone there, and the pleading is a thin tributary flowing into the great river of human longing. Other times, God wakes with me, sits on the edge of the bed, takes in the pleading, and we commiserate.

And once in a while, she is awake before me. This morning, there she was, in the darkest corner, staring across the room, breathing all the available air. I woke in her gaze, fighting to get enough oxygen to begin the day. She emanated a largeness, an earthy, expansive decomposition.

“Could you shrink a little?” I asked. “You’re suffocating me. And you need a bath or something.”

God blushed and pulled some of herself back in. “I guess I overshot a little,” she said. “I got distracted waiting for you to wake up.” She didn’t say it in a mean way, but I rolled over and turned my face to the wall in shame.

Here was God, sitting around, getting bigger, sweaty, and out of breath waiting for me to wake up. I’ve been trying to wake up my whole life. There are so damn many temptations, such a draw to falsehoods. There are mental dead-ends, alleys filled with trash, and a certain alluring homelessness that both invites and frightens me.

“God,” I mumbled from under the covers., still facing away. But I stopped. Words are magic, but they are secondary to the primal wish for connection and comprehension. They’re slippery and can be used for nefarious purposes. I didn’t want to hide or obfuscate or excuse myself. I just wanted…I just wanted…I rolled back over to face God.

“Please,” I said. “Please.” Like most mornings, it was all I had. What I was longing for wasn’t clear. Who I am wasn’t clear. What might turn the tide wasn’t clear. The way back wasn’t clear, and the way forward wasn’t either. God was painfully present. Listening. I felt a rising sense of panic.

God opened her mouth. Oh no, I thought. Oh no. Here it comes. What was I thinking? I’m not ready. I’m stupid. I won’t understand whatever she says. I’m old. I’m too weak to do whatever she is going to say. I’m selfish. I didn’t dare plug my ears, but I considered it. The pause may have been brief, or may have lasted centuries. It was long enough for our eyes to lock.

“If you add thank you,” God said gently, “you’ll feel a little better.” Then she settled in beside me, releasing more air than I could ever breathe. I hid under her downy wings and slept the sleep of the holy. The innocent. The dead. This is the only place it is safe to be awake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Babies in Cages

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“Hey God,” I said, barely awake enough to keep my balance while getting breakfast together. It had been a long night, peppered with images of clergy trying to reclaim the name of Jesus and the faces of friends, offended or cheering, and images of crying children. Political pawns—all of us—political pawns in a game best named Greed. I’m a bit player, but I play. We all play.

“This thing about the name of Jesus, or the name of anyone for that matter. I’ve never quite understood it,” I said, spilling a little coffee on myself. I always fill the cup too full.

“Yeah, I know,” God said. “It’s confusing. Is a rose still a rose if you call it fruit-of-thorn-bush?”

I wanted to say yes, but I wasn’t sure. Essence versus label. Image versus substance. Symbol versus reality. At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow? The name? I don’t think so.

“You know I’m not a formula, right?” God asked, trying to be of help. “And you know I’ve tried my darnedest to urge humans along, to reduce the fear, to increase the joy, right? I’ve tried to make it safe to love. Safe to kneel.”

I nodded. Then an awful realization crept into my soul. God wasn’t talking about the usual kind of safety. The good ones suffer and die. The children of God don’t get a pass, no matter how they were conceived or received—named or framed. Having arrived at the evolutionary pinnacle of being able to see ourselves as made in the image of God means nothing in the realm of power, money, influence, safety, or ease of life. It only means we have a couple of choices the rest of creation does not appear to have: We can choose self-sacrifice. We can choose to defy hatred. We can give our lives for our friends. We can love our neighbors. And we can expect to get a whole lot of abuse while we do these things. Some of us will lose a great deal in the process. Some of us will die.

I sat on the couch, ashamed of my comfort. Agitated by urges to drive to the border and get in a cage. Unwillingly complacent. Lost.

“Stop it,” God said, reading my mind as usual. “You aren’t lost. Just a little frozen.”

“Fine, then. Thaw me out,” I said. I may have even crossed my arms in a kind of angsty defiance.

“Blow torch or balmy breeze?” God asked, smirking a little.

There are no words to describe the sound I made. I lost it. I lunged at God, hoping to land a sucker punch. “YOU’RE IMPOSSIBLE,” I yelled as I flailed and howled.

“That’s it, baby,” God said. “That’s the spirit. Take it and run. No gesture is wasted. Do what you can. Go where you must. I’ll be there. And remember–that Jesus thing has a happy ending. Most likely, you will too.”