When the Choir Preaches Back

Sometimes I count my blessings; sometimes I count my years, and though I don’t like admitting it, sometimes I count the number of people I think of as willfully, proudly ignorant, and my mood sinks. But as dawn arrives and light asserts itself, my despair dissipates into benign speculation, and I am among the billions awaiting transitions no one can explain. I watch God in the fire and in the lines of frost across the windows evaporating directly into air. I watch God peacefully protesting greed, misogyny, and cruelty. I imagine my grandchildren and their grandchildren carrying genes across the great divides of life and death, and I am both stricken and intrigued. What could I possibly do to lessen the burdens and reduce the suffering to come?

God emerges gentle. Always gentle. Always sacrificial. Always self-assured. Kindling for the fire. Moisture for the frost. God surrounds me, stone tools, dead branches, herds of deer, flocks of sparrows, and a holy stillness in which I can rest. I don’t want to rest. I am aware of how easily I will break and burn and disappear. I want to speed down the runway and lift into a sky that will leave me unbroken and unchanged.

“If you reduce the suffering, you reduce the joy,” God speaks in everywhere voices. “If you take away the burdens, the bones soften. The understandings recede and the cost rises.”

“Hello, Old Friend,” I say. “Let’s not fight today. I won’t disagree or complain or act as if I know anything at all. Instead, could we fly? Could we walk through fire, find the garden, and open the gates?”

God laughs and lifts a million arms in praise. A multitude of God begins to sway to an inescapable beat; a galactic choir robed in sunrise crimson bursts into a seditious version of the Hallelujah Chorus; I’m not Mormon or Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, Jainist or Hindu, or anything defined beyond my tenuous friendship with God, but as I sidle up, my Friend throws a heavy velvet robe across my shoulders, and I join the altos. We sing the truths of repeated defeat. The roiling ocean of human sorrow buoys us up, the crashing waves, a steady percussion section. Hundreds of soaring sopranos lift off and take the high notes with them, but like spring, they promise to return.

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.

Senses

Smell is our oldest sense. Collectively, humans can detect billions of different odors. This has played a central role in our evolution, leading to such literary declarations as Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. The sense of smell has made headlines recently because a microscopic organism has been infecting human brains, disabling the senses of smell and taste: a virus not to be trifled with. But then, evil is rarely to be trifled with, right God?

No answer. The silence isn’t holy. But some days, I just keep talking.

And about this notion of evil, God. Who’s evil? What is it? As you know, I don’t like dust settling on things again and again or ashes as a final destination. I like fresh sheets, crisp salad, and good news. Call me shallow, but that’s the way it is, God. I would prefer to be comfortable, adored, young, well-fed, and smart. And whatever deprives me of what I want, well, let’s call that evil, shall we?

My one-way chat takes a nasty turn as the sun intensifies through the window and I see myself reflected on my computer screen in all my dismal glory. “No wonder God is busy elsewhere,” I say to my image in a mean voice. “You’re all the things you dread.” I consider the procedures and surgeries available to make me seem younger, more adorable, smarter. This breaks my fall. My distended ego deflates, and I give myself a smile that naturally lifts the wrinkles.

See, God? Here I am, smiling. All done judging. C’mon by.

I sit. I force myself to say prayers of lovingkindness for the twisted senator, the mouth-breathing fools on the airplanes, lazy neighbors, unkind people, even those who torture, deprive, and dehumanize. I give thanks for my senses, even though I can smell the blood of the disgusting humans who are destroying the planet. Oh, I wish I were the giant.

This last thought finally rouses The Presence. Holy Words, like sleek black animals, invade my brain. “You can’t eat your way to heaven,” they say in a low growl. “You can’t smell your way to salvation. You can’t see the face of God, and you can’t force your way in.” The Words collect around The Presence, and The Presence turns to me, taking the shape of a very old friend.

“The thing that shines in the broken moment, the shelter of translucent skin, these are lessons. Very little of who you are or what you do is to your credit or entirely your fault. Regardless, you will never be the giant. For this, be grateful. Go listen to holiday music. Inhale cinnamon and vanilla.”

“But that seems so…” I pause.

“Shallow?” asks my Very Old Friend. “Simple?”

“Yeah,” I nod. “It’s like giving up. Surrendering.”

“Yes,” my Very Old Friend says. “Much harder than it seems. But you can do it.  I’ll help.”

Sphincters and Other Lesser Parts of the World

In the process of letting go (a euphemism for aging) I’ve grown more conversant with my inner workings. Organs, nerves, limbs, skin, circulatory systems, hairline–we’ve all befriended each other. For instance, on a recent road trip miles from anywhere, my bladder urged me to pull over. I squatted (a humble pose if there ever was one) and waved cheerfully at the driver of the pick-up that happened by. She waved back. A warm calm spread throughout my body as my bladder and I drove on home.

Some of us think of creation as parts of The Body. Others are more exclusive about who’s in and who’s out; what’s to be honored, who’s to be enslaved. These are ego-based pretendings, wrong-headed derivations. In the Oneness, every molecule has a voice. For instance, when stubbed, the oft-overlooked third toe suddenly takes center stage.

This is the kind of pondering that almost always guarantees a visit from God. Sure enough. She’s arrived on the west wind with a flood-inducing chinook on her tail.

“Why, hello there, God,” I say. “What a nice surprise. C’mon in.” My automatic hospitality reminds me of a poem my grandmother had on her kitchen wall:

            Guest, you are welcome here. Be at your ease.

            Get up when you’re ready. Go to bed when you please.

            We’re happy to share with you, such as we’ve got,

            The leaks in the roof and the soup in the pot.

            You don’t have to thank us or laugh at our jokes.

            Sit deep and come often. You’re one of the folks.

I memorized the rhyme, but I didn’t know what it meant to sit deep, and I didn’t like people partaking of my grandmother’s kindness. I wanted her all to myself. Now, I want God all to myself. I want singular adoration, endless comfort, and permission to be at my ease forever without the hassles of caring for others.

“Sorry,” God says. “Doesn’t work that way.” We gaze at the fire. She strokes her chin. “If you had a choice, which part of The Body would you be?”

I chew my thumb and think. Brain, eyes, ears all come to mind, but they’re too obvious. “Bladder,” I say. “I’d be the mop bucket.”

God laughs. “You know you’d have to cooperate with the sphincter, right?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ve known that for a very long time.” I raise my right hand. “I do hereby solemnly swear to love and honor the sphincters of the world. My own and others.”

I expect God to chuckle, but instead, I realize we are sitting deep; God and me. And I see that nothing functions without cooperation and mutual respect, internally or out there in the nasty, brutal, fractured Oneness we live within. I know I’m not alone, but sometimes I wish I were.

Holiday Lights

Recently, my friend brushed so close to death that her skin became luminescent, and the fingers on her left hand grew longer and more graceful. I noticed this when she lifted that hand to show me how she’d surrendered. I suspect she was either bidding the others in the room farewell or she was offering her hand and the rest of herself to the Larger. She doesn’t know. But at that moment, a Boundless Tangibility of Peace overcame the reluctance in her lungs, and she lived. It was that close. I like looking at her. She’s always had an easy laugh and a generous ear, but now she glows.

Three years ago, I decorated random pieces of yard art with solar-powered holiday lights, and they’ve flickered ever since, faithfully announcing the arrival of a thousand nightfalls. Of course, I know that eventually the lights will go out and my friend will stop glowing, but the pressing question is this: What are we supposed to do in the meantime? How should we greet each sunrise when we find ourselves alive? How do we handle the twinkling blue as daylight fades? My friend isn’t sure. Neither am I. We think it has something to do with acceptance. Authenticity. Doing our best.

But who knows? My Co-author does, but it’s tough to get a straight answer.

“Now honey-pie, y’know that ain’t true.” God has shown up. He protests in an awful imitation of a Southern drawl. “Y’all make this a bigger puzzle than it needs to be. I’ve been damn straight on this since forever. Love, give, and rejoice until you cannot do it anymore. Then fold.”

“You make it sound easy, but it’s not,” I say, feeling both insolent and amused.

“Want me to spell it out, darlin’?” God asks, long arms crossed over galactic chest, looking impish.

“Yeah,” I say. “Spell it out.”

“Love.” God says as if he’s in a spelling bee. “L. O. V. E.”

“Very funny,” I say.

“Then laugh,” God says. “Laugh your greedy, frightened, malignant, time-limited ass off.”

“I don’t mean funny like that,” I counter. “I mean you aren’t much help. I can spell ‘love’ all by myself.”

“Oh, really?” God asks and waits.

“Really,” I say firmly. But I’m lying. I’ll be asking for help within minutes. With apologies to Robert Frost, I’m often a lost child in the confusing woods when it comes to love.

“Now, ain’t that the Truth?” The Boundless Tangibility of Peace says to the Larger.

“For certain,” The Larger says. “Them woods is lovely, dark, and deep. But they ain’t no place for a chubby-cheeked babe.”

This cracks us up and we laugh our fool heads off. Yes, God is Love, the Big Breast in the Sky, the Larger, the Smaller, the Woods, the Clay, the Life, the Death. And yes, God is the Way Home. But until then, there’s work to do, and we all know how it’s spelled.

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.