The Dance

Sometimes, I don’t get along with the co-author of this blog all that well. We argue, give each other the silent treatment, and land low blows, but then we usually find our way to uncomfortable compromises. It isn’t exactly quiet desperation, but close. We’re like the gruesome twosome in the couples counseling literature—together for the long haul, though there are days it isn’t pretty. Arguing with God is a thankless task and there is scant evidence it does much good, but what are the alternatives? Eat curses and enemies for breakfast with loaded guns across our laps? Slide blithely toward extinction? Give shallow thanks for our short-sighted blessings, imagined or real? Die alienated, resentful, or afraid? No.

For instance, this morning I say, “Hear my prayers, oh mighty and all-knowing God.” (I only start this way when I’m in a certain mood.) “I implore you to move most of earth’s population to other planets. Provide everyone with birth control, shelter, and nutritious food. Let the artists do art. Let the lovers love. Let the earth recover its incredible balance. Disable all weaponry. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Amen.”

My co-author responds. “Hear my suggestions, oh puny human,” she says. “Feed the hungry. Provide shelter and comfort to one another. Limit your offspring. Visit those who are ill or imprisoned. Give cheerfully and pay your taxes willingly. Elect rulers with integrity and compassion. Stop relying on that which is nonrenewable. Stop using poisons and short-cuts. Stop using weapons. Stop acting like you own the place. You’re just passing through. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Selah.”

Our longings are similar, but we disagree about who’s responsible. Many of us can’t even carry a tune. Who should take the lead?  

“Not me,” God says. “I’ve already given you all you need.”

“I don’t think so,” I say.

“Of course you’d say that,” God says, in a firm mother’s voice. “You’ve made a royal mess. Clean your room.”

“I would,” I claim, shamefaced. “But I don’t know which one’s mine.”

“Doesn’t matter,” God says. She hands me a dust cloth, a mop, a broom, knee pads, a toolkit, water bottles…

“Stop!” I say, “I already have all that stuff.”

God grabs a can of oven cleaner. “Then let’s get going,” she says. “I need time to practice. I’m combining tap with some exquisite break-dance moves for my next performance.”

This is a great motivator. I love watching God dance, her muscular body supple and yielding, her hair snapping like lightning. Sometimes, she invites the universe to be her partner, and spectacular forces shape themselves to her. Sometimes, she dances solo. Either way, it is magnificent. I gather rags and rubber gloves, and away we go. I’m not sure what, but something will be shiny clean by noon.

Volcanic

God slept rough last night alongside the cooling embers of volcanic rock from the eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo in Africa. She awoke exposed, porous and pure as the lava itself, but this did not make her happy. She shook me awake to ask if I would bury her under the acres of rich loam currently planted in alfalfa so she could begin reclaiming her complexity. To be simplified to lava is painful.

“Oh no!” I exclaimed as I opened my eyes in the dim light of dawn and ran my hands over a face so jagged and pitted it made terrible acne seem easy. “Oh sweet God. You’ve become stone.”

“Yes,” God said, woeful, but with a shred of hope. “Lava stone. I’ve heard it has healing properties, but I’d rather move along. Bury me in the topsoil, please. There’s still time. I’ll take care of the rest.”

I reluctantly agreed. We held hands as we walked through the verdant fields made fertile by thousands of years of runoff from the surrounding and willing hills. I was glad I’d remembered my cowhide gloves, both because the hand of God was razor sharp and because the shovel I was dragging along was old. The handle was splintered, and I knew I would be digging for a long time, possibly the rest of my life.

The squawking of the wild and noisy geese nesting across the river helped me find my center as God chose the perfect place to be interned. I wished for another way, but life consists of trying to solve things that are not solvable. This is something gradually revealed over the years allotted to those defined as alive. They say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. This is true, but then the same can be said for all deaths; ultimately all problems are subjective and temporary, and all deaths seem permanent.

The bounce of sound across water is predictable but not guaranteed.

“God,” I said. “Are you sure?” I was wondering why God insisted on being buried on such a beautiful day. I wondered why I had to be the one digging. I wondered where this weathered old shovel came from.

“Yes,” God said, the nod of her head causing tremors under my feet. Her voice is not measured in decibels but rather revealed in the marrow of reverberating bone. I broke ground, putting body and soul into the sink of the shovel, giving thanks for the leather protecting my thin, unlovely skin from slivers and blisters. I have callouses, but they are often an insufficient defense for these long hot days and the softening effect of sweat.

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.”

Windbreak

A crumpled pile of receipts rests on the table in front of me. And a beer. And a list of things to do. Outside, dawn light sparkles on the frosted frame of what might become a raised bed garden next spring, assuming spring arrives, and I can lift a shovel. A green wheel-barrel with a flat tire has blown over, hollyhock stalks bend and whip, and solar holiday lights that’ve twinkled for over a year still twinkle. The tool shed door has come unhinged in the screaming wind, brilliant red flashing helplessly back and forth. This view is not the one I will have when I become molecular, reconfigured, and nearly weightless, but I’m grateful for the shelter. It will do for now.

The troubles have been thinning God down again. His head looks too big for his skinny neck. He has no appetite for violence. The drug-induced haze of belief and disbelief, bad dreams, and short lives, twist around his frame like invasive weeds choking airways God had hoped would stay open. The assumption of permanence in a brutal, impermanent, world is just the kind of folly a hopeful God might fall for. I don’t want to make things worse, so I let God sit. And God lets me sit.

I wonder if the molecular structure of a Nazi or a billionaire is significantly different than God’s. Or mine. I wonder if the molecular structures of those whose actions have ended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are similar to the molecular structures of those they’ve killed. I wonder if the wind will be able to tell the difference between strands of human humility and jagged fragments of human arrogance when it carries these remnants into the stratosphere. I suspect so. God rides this wind. God is this wind.

When we sniff the soft round head of a baby, don’t we realize we’re inhaling God? When we execute an inmate or take an officer down, the audacity is an accelerant for the fires lit by fear. The costs are horrific. I know. The receipts are scattered on the coffee table. God sometimes considers going back to the drawing board; he has lists and ideas. He has an app. He has a heart and bodies and a vision. His surnames are Evolution, Compassion. Charity. And Sacrifice. And no matter what he creates, who he marries, or which children he adopts, he’s not going to change those names. At least that much is permanent.

One of the reasons God and I drink a half-beer in the morning is that we dread the latest bad news here on this little earth. Ritual can be calming. All week, God’s been taunted, tortured, abused, executed, raped, starved, and burned alive; things done to feed cancerous egos in the names of various gods, all of which are vicious. All of which are dead. But whatever it is that God is, it is not dead. A word to the wise: Even when it’s howling, it’s best to befriend the wind.

Coexistence

Our mousetraps often spring in the night, catching hapless rodents intent on eating our oatmeal or the crumbs from dinner. It always wakes me up. I hate the whole process. We diligently search for the entry points and sometimes seem to stem the inward march, but their skeletons flex, delicate as bird bones. They seem to materialize out of thin air. We see the gray flash or hear the dreaded scamper, and another round of trap-setting begins.

Some skirt around the traps. Others nibble so delicately they’re able to take a few bites and execute a temporary getaway. Some are miserably caught by their tails and drag the trap around. Others die from a clean crack across the neck.

Outside, the cats and hawks are always ready for another meal, so I understand the motivation to find a way in; warm places to nest and tasty scraps to glean. But these comforts are brief and fatal.

“Brief and fatal,” God says with a nod.

“Well, hello, Mr. Echo,” I say. God’s presence doesn’t unsettle me so much anymore. Besides, I could use a distraction. I’m working on my Advanced Directives with a Dementia Addendum. I wave the sheets of paper at God. “Want to serve as my witness?”

“I am always and forever your witness, honey,” God says. “But my signature isn’t worth a plug nickel.”

I’m not sure what that idiom means, but I like it. It was a favorite of my mom’s. “You’re pretty funny,” I say.

“I know,” God says. I turn to give God a smile, and just then, we both hear the snap from under the bench. I flinch. God says in a voice laden with irony, “And another one bites the dust.”

I start toward the trap, but God gets there first. “I’ll take care of it for you,” God says. I open the door. Twilight floods in, a dark liquid that will eventually dissolve my feet. I try to be brave.

So, so gently, God lifts the twitching mouse.  Joins the twitching mouse.  Becomes the twitching mouse.

And I am the hapless witness, briefly bereft of my fatal comforts, wishing such infusions of wisdom didn’t take so long.

A host of earthly beings surround God’s body, now peacefully still in the garden. I put on my coat and boots and go out to lie down beside my fine-boned God. In the steel gray sky, an eagle circles, sharp-eyed and majestic. The wingspan alone is beyond comprehension.

Body Snatching

Today, I painted the fingernails on the plastic hand that I bought at an estate sale last summer. Apparently. the hand fell off of a mannequin into the pocket of an older individual who took it home. Who knows why? The daughter was selling everything, and I didn’t blame her. Her inheritance was mostly junk, though I did get a nice brass lamp and some decent pillowcases along with the hand. The graceful curl of these fingers reminds me of my mother’s hands. She kept her shapely nails immaculate, and on very special occasions, she painted them red. Mine were always chipped. This bothered her.

I have other projects, too. So many meaningful activities, it’s hard to choose among them. I’ve already answered emails, done Facetime with a friend, texted God twice, and eaten half of a pumpkin pie. Soon, I’ll take care of some other dreaded items on my list. But first, I need to gather myself in my dim navigational mirror and chart my way. God’s answer to my first text was garbled and long, filled with comically misspelled words. Essentially, it said “Hang on a bit longer, little buddy. I’m gathering fallen leaves, breathing over the surface of a thousand planets, and birthing stars. I wish I could bring you with me, but you must stay put. I’ll circle back.”

“Wait,” I texted back. “WAIT.”

I’m not sure what one does with a waiting God, but I didn’t need to figure that out because God refused. “No,” God texted. “You’re the one who has to wait.”

I know the fog will burn off, only to gather again, storms will rage, subside, and rage. The eternal is comprehensible only to a broken man lying on the side of the road–and only for a moment.

I am bereft of mother and father, bereft of a God that will submit to containment and do my bidding. But while I can, I will name the hatreds so hot, so wrong, they are burning holes in the fabric of hope. When I’m at my best, I, too, wait broken on the side of the road, and as darkness gathers, I, too, look up and see the cold light of stars—ancient light that has made its way over terrain I cannot imagine. As the sure and final darkness falls, I hope I will remember to pry my fists open and paint my broken nails florescent red. And then, when God circles back, I hope I’ll wave my fancy fingers like a shameless fool; defenseless and overjoyed.

For Paula

This morning I awoke in the land of the living but someone I loved for decades did not. Her long life ended peacefully last night, and the world is emptier this morning. God wants me to edit that last line because it isn’t quite accurate from God’s perspective, but I’m not going to. From my perspective, one of the gentlest, most generous people I’ve ever known is gone, and the world is emptier. From God’s perspective, all things transform. Time is an elastic metaphor God uses to teach us about love. I don’t like today’s lesson. Love is costly and painful for linear beings.

The last time I saw her, with some hesitation, she let me hold her hand, birdlike bones covered in bruised, paper-thin skin. She recognized the warmth of my hand. That’s all. Most of her had already melted away. During that visit, God spent his time in the kitchen making chocolate cake. She and her roommates, the vacant people in their vacant chairs, still relished a bite of warm cake with a touch of ice cream.

But there comes a time when there is nothing left to relish. The curled body tightens into a perfect circle, and it is done. Finished. A life has been accomplished. The final grades are in. The eternal vacation of liquid soul has begun. But God objects again. He claims there is no beginning. No end. Only flow. And again, I refuse to edit. And I cry. And God cries.

This is the thing I like about God. He willingly gets linear and crawls right into the pain. He sobs, surrounds, and sits with me. He reminds me how many ways there are to die, and we marvel together that I have this day. This moment. That’s all.

The Mystery fractures into light. Photosynthesis begins. The Bread of Life is chocolate cake. The Living Waters of her endless kindness flow to the sea, and there the kindness shall flow again. There we shall all flow again. She loved walking on the beach, collecting sand dollars, remembering the clam digs. I wish we’d walked there more, but I’m grateful for the times we did. I see her knobby feet in the sand, her old-lady pants rolled to the knee, her face turned to the endless horizon. “Safe travels,” I whisper as the Mystery takes her away. I’m pretty sure I saw her wave.

Cerulean Blue

A while back, God asked to borrow a few tubes of my acrylic paint. How could I say no? I have an abundance of paint. He took the most exotic colors and has yet to return them. This morning, I’m working up my courage to demand that he either order replacements or return my paints. There was a tube of cerulean blue that I always used sparingly because of the magic it could evoke. I can’t say for certain but knowing that tube is missing may be the reason I’ve not touched my paints for months. So, I’m sitting here, waiting for God, planning how I’ll broach the subject.

“Just broach it already,” God says from the darkest corner in the room. I can barely see him, but he sounds present and impatient.

“Well, that cerulean blue was my favorite,” I say, equally present and impatient. “I think you knew that when you took off with it.” I’m standing my ground. God’s got nothing on me this morning. The fires are raging, the air is dense, and as usual, I’m predicting a bitter end to humanity.

The room goes blue. The bluest blue. The blue of perfect sky, calm ocean, deep lake. So blue I can taste it; I can hear it. I can feel it sinking in. My wayward hands and desolate heart are blue. My smirky face is blue. The insides of my eyelids are blue, and the claw marks I’ve made trying to escape are blue. Everything is exceedingly, abundantly blue.

“Enough?” he asks, grinning. His teeth and saliva are a dazzling blue.

Transformed, absorbed, I run with blue legs into the blue universe and throw my arms around a miraculous blue marble floating in blue nothingness. I am renewed. I will paint until my fingers fall off. I will paint with my body, my hammer, my shoes, every ounce of me. I will fling color around like confetti, and it will be God. Layers and layers of God. It will always be God.

“I still see you,” I tell God as he slowly removes himself from visibility. “I see you just fine. And I hear you humming blue. And I taste you in this beer. And I know you aren’t going anywhere. And I’m happy. But could you give me back that paint you borrowed? Please?”

“Sure,” the Blue murmurs. He hands me a bag of paints with more colors than I’ve ever seen. “Break a leg,” he says.

“Oh, good grief,” I say. “That’s what you say to an actor about to go onstage.”

“Right,” God says, hitting himself on the side of his blue, blue head. “I knew that.” But it wasn’t a mistake. God always means what he says. When God encounters headstrong humans, he often wrestles with them. They don’t come away destroyed, but they definitely limp. With these colors, I will not come out unscathed. Or even alive. But I’m okay with that. I’m going to paint anyway.

Legacy

Reportedly one symptom of Covid 19 is the loss of taste, which in rare cases could be a blessing. The worst thing I’ve ever tasted was a stink bug hidden in a bowl of fresh raspberries. Stink bugs emit a foul odor when disturbed, but they taste far more foul when bitten.

I doubt God has ever bitten a stink bug. I imagine the worst thing God has ever tasted is hatred. Even a little bit of hatred can ruin the whole savory stew of a creation born of love. I spat that stink bug out, brushed my teeth, and gargled, but the taste lingered. I shudder to think what we’re doing to God right now. But maybe it’s God’s own fault. The stink bug was entirely accidental. We’re not. There’s nothing accidental about us.

Some of you may wonder about the motivation, sanity, and content of this blog…as have I. Right now, you are reading my 200th post. Just over five years ago, I had a chance encounter with cancer. Facing imminent mortality yanked my consciousness around. Disbelief and indignation got all tangled up with gratitude, terror, and determination. My connections to the Great Beyond, the God of Bigness, Littleness, Cosmos, Critters, Creative Urgency, and Salvation expanded like stretchy strands of spider web, tenacious as dry rot eating through brick; God, the ever-branching tentacles; me, the crumbling brick.

I’ve gotten to know my bothersome Co-Author fairly well because I live by a river, and it’s quiet sometimes–quiet enough to hear the continual cracking of God’s fractured heart and green enough to witness the courageous mending wrought by the small yellow flowers as they befriend their fate.

Every day, I try to follow suit and befriend my fate. Bark peels off the fallen tree into my hands, and even this has become more beautiful than I can bear. I lay the best pieces on the water and send them downstream to people I do not know and cannot name; gay, black, beaten, homeless…the hungry and the dead.

No one comes back to tell us anything about legacies or regrets, but I am convinced everything matters a little. Like attending. Showing up. But to really show up, to take it all in, I have to pry myself open to touch and see, listen…and yes, to smell and taste. Even after the stink bug incident, some days I bravely sniff the breeze and roll the taste of God around in my mouth. No matter how fresh or putrid, bitter or sweet, I try to savor. Some days, God bravely does the same with me.

I wish each ferocious moment of connection would be enough, but that’s not how it works. Thus, I ponder and write. Thank you for reading these blogs and for prying yourselves as open as you dare. Openings create legacies, fleeting and fine-boned, as all legacies should be. For that, I am grateful.

It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere

Lately, I’ve been taking the world apart little by little. Originally, I had planned to put it back together once I understood how everything worked, but I’m afraid I’ve misplaced some key pieces, and occasionally, I’ve gotten impatient, pulled too hard, and broken things. So, my new plan is a simplified version. Let things come together as they will. Sandstone with lichen. Rain that soaks the just and the unjust. Lightening that strikes on a whim. Fire that burns selective and incomplete. I can’t keep track of the passing hours or the imagined threats anymore.

I told God about my undoings and lingering responsibilities, hoping he’d take a hint and be of some kind of help, but he’s so busy. “It’s July and I haven’t even got my snow tires off,” he said.

“Yeah, but it’s snowing somewhere,” I said–an old happy hour joke—it’s 5:00 somewhere. We like being happy, me and God. We laughed.

“I know you could use some help with your projects, but with all the cotton blowing off the cottonwood trees and old people dying like honeybees, I just don’t have the kind of time it would take to put your world back together,” God said. His face had a pointed, parental look.

I didn’t believe him because God is not bound by time or space, but then I’m not always honest either. For instance, I’m not actually taking the world apart. The world is taking me apart, and it’s me who won’t be coming back together. Someday, I will be the lichen on the sandstone and the falling rain.

“If you’re lucky,” God interjected.

I knew God was still joking around, wanting to laugh and keep the mood light. And why not? When the time comes, I’m guessing God will give me a different way to see what has always been and will always be. I’ll have new jobs and a new name.

“But not yet,” God said to my wandering mind, sounding impatient with my inwardality. “Your old name still works. Like you said, it’s snowing somewhere. Let’s get a move on. Make hay while the sun shines. Don’t you trust me anymore?”

“What’s not to trust?” I muttered, mostly to myself. But I got dressed anyway, found my purple work boots exactly where I’d left them, and dragged out the mower. God was right. My old name still works. For now.