Life as a One-Act Play

Shades of green and lavender dance in the background. Even with eyes wide open, it’s impossible to tell if the room has walls or is defined more by water and isolation. Actors are vaguely aware of each other.

Me: (sermonizing to a nebulous offstage audience) Mother Earth is exhausted by this adolescent phase of humanity. We’re facing severe consequence. All it will take is one big planetary shrug and we’ll be a species known only by bones. We’ve failed to outgrow our epic selfishness, destructive impulsivity, and futile denial of mortality. Earth won’t clean up after us forever; our money and phony apologies won’t save us…

God: (muttering to self, pacing) She’s right. They should know better by now. Maybe I should have set firmer limits.

Me: (turning to God) Or maybe you’re sending mixed messages.

God: (slightly mystified) I thought love would be enough.

Me: (sad, defensive) I don’t know why you’d make that assumption. Love is a lot harder than you realize.

God: (indignant) You think I don’t know that?  I keep course-correcting with forgiveness and wearing my best clothes so that nature might have a chance to teach you something. I hate to mention this, but on other planets, things are going better.

Me: (shaken) But aren’t we your planet of choice? Aren’t we your favorites?

God: (thoughtfully muttering to self again) Too close to call. Tough to know how much more to invest. (Turning to me) Everyone wants to be my favorite, but actually, I’m my own favorite. It has to be that way.

Me: (indignant, arms crossed) Well then, I’m my own favorite, too.

God: (wryly) How’s your lumber supply? You’re aware of the supply chain problems, right?

Me: (trying to be funny) Are we talking ark? Greenhouse? Firewood?

God: (expanding to ginormous) All of the above. And more. Add marshmallows to your list.

Me: (despairing) And coffins? We’re gonna need lots of coffins.

God: (grabbing my hand with tenderness, a thousand eyes crying) Yes. I can’t change that. But eventually, they’ll be empty, baby. Empty.

Me: (trying to yank my hand free) Are we talking resurrection or decomposition?

God: (many heads nodding) Yes.

Light fades to the point where photoreceptor cells in the well-developed vertebrate retina are challenged, and the cones let go. Color dies but thanks to the rods, a set of hazy gray paths are still visible. They merge at the vanishing point.

Partying with God

“Hey, God,” I whisper, slipping quietly down the dimly-lit stairs. God’s an early riser, but others are still asleep. “Wanna party?” Sometimes, my morning mood is both desolate and overly energized. I don’t even know why I say what I say.

“You bet,” God answers with enthusiasm. “You mean like eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die?”

Exactly, I think to myself. I want a reassuring party with my adoring little God: a fatalistic precursor, debauchery-laced denial.

My eyes slowly adjust to the sunrise out the window. The pasture glistens far beyond a describable green. Turkeys have been eating the tops off my onion sets, and chokecherries are budding. Spring is arriving with her usual expectations, but each winter leaves another indelible mark on my psyche.

Inviting God to party is risky, but not inviting God is risky too. This one will cost me a bottle of beer, some lime-flavored chips, and the kind of scrutiny only fools and children are willing to endure. But right now, I am an unswaddled child. I’ll be fine, I tell myself.

“No, you won’t,” God says in a million joyful voices. “You won’t be fine. You are fine. There’s a difference. C’mon. Let’s get this party on the road.”  God is legion. They are many. They are beautiful. I don’t have enough beer. And even if the chips expand like the loaves and fishes, they’re stale.

“Ah, never mind,” I say. “Let’s skip the party. I need to go shopping and pull some weeds. I need to put things away, do the floors, make some calls.”

“But you invited us,” God protests. “We’re coming along, no matter how you spend your time. And we brought plenty of refreshments. You didn’t think we’d show up empty-handed, did you?”

I have endured scorn, exalted in adoration, sought invisibility, reveled in mastery, and played by myself on any number of shorelines and precipices. What possessed me to issue that rash invitation? A party with God at dawn? I might be an unswaddled child in my mind, but in reality, these stairs are a real challenge.

I sit on the bottom step, cover my ears, close my eyes, and will God to disappear. Instead, she scales down to singular and sits beside me in superhero pajamas. She hands me coffee. I hand her the day. She turns it this way and that, gazes at its beauty, touches its pain, and hands it back.

“All yours,” she says. “Enjoy.”

“I’ll try,” I say as I put the day in my pocket. And I mean it.            

“I know you will,” she says. And she means it, too.

There Will Come a Day

When I got out my vitamin organizer to take my supplements this morning, today’s cubby was empty. I must have dipped in twice yesterday. No wonder I feel overwrought; too much B-complex and an overdose of magnesium may account for my anxious dream last night wherein Barack Obama helped me bandage the finger I cut making his family a salad. I don’t like forgetting, and I don’t like anxious dreams.

But dream we must. Forget we must.  Decline we must. Die we must. There will come a day when the puppy digging in the compost right now is an old, grey-faced mutt, and there will come a morning when no matter how watchful I am, I won’t glimpse my sister, half-crazed on her 4-wheeler, chasing down a skunk with her shotgun.

“Sorry I’m late,” God says as she rushes in. “You’ve rearranged your writing space. I like it.”

“Oh, hi God,” I say. “Coffee?”

God holds up her hand. “No, thanks. I had a cup with your neighbor, and I’m going to treat myself to a latte later. Still catching up on the fiascos of Easter/Passover/Ramadan. And Ukraine…” Her voice cracks.

“Hmmm,” I say. “Want some vitamins or something?”

God smiles and leans forward. “You know I’m not vengeful, right?” I nod and wait. “And you know I don’t play favorites, right?” I nod again, wishing I could be an exception. “And you know branches will always grow toward the sun and move gracefully in the wind, and things you drop will fall toward the center, right?”

I nod a third time suddenly feeling quite sad. “And where do the things you drop go?” I ask in a quiet voice, turning my face away. But God sees my eyes welling up anyway. She makes a fist of her giant hand and thumps herself hard in the chest. “Right here,” she says, and hits herself again. “Right here.”

When I sleep, I shroud the windows in purple velvet drapes. It occurs to me that I’d like my body wrapped in these before it is laid to rest in the garden. “Sounds like a good plan,” God says, voice fading. “I like purple.”

I have the intention of wiping my eyes and nodding again, but neither are possible because I have dissipated into the moment. The drapes are sun-streaked, dusty, and elegant. Granted, it may be an idiosyncratic or imagined elegance, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is the gravity-defying blackbird perched on the top branch of the wind-whipped cottonwood.

Bucket Lists

Nearly all the windows in our house are oriented south for solar gain, but the view to the north is exceptionally nice. Our inner space reflects a set of values, givens, and limits. We’ve filled most rooms with books and rocks to hide lapses in judgment. Outside, the garden has gradually improved—I love repurposing metal coated with rust and twisted stumps that are not yet dust. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

“Yes,” God says, disrupting my existential mulling. “I love repurposing, too. Especially the fragile and distorted.”

“Hi there, God,” I say in a falsely chipper voice. “How about you be nice and take care of me today? Let’s exercise, write, do some art, drink green smoothies, and then after I’ve fallen fast asleep, how about you carry me gently into the next realm?”

“What?” God says in mock surprise. “You want to cash it in?”

“Well, yeah. Or, maybe,” I say. “I don’t like aging. I want an easy way out.”

“An easy way out,” God echoes, nodding. “Thank you for being honest with me.” This is a standard phrase therapists use when clients drop a verbal bomb about their homicidal, suicidal, malicious, vindictive, hopeless, violent urges and fantasies. It buys a little time.

But God doesn’t need to buy time. I’m suspicious. God already knows I’m as afraid of dying as the next person, but I’m deeply ambivalent about staying alive. Fighting for every last breath soaks up resources, drains loved ones, involves a fair amount of suffering, and has the same outcome. What’s a few more days or even years if they are filled with pain, struggle, and hardship? It may look heroic, but there are many ways to define heroic. Leaving willingly, gracefully, at the right time might be another definition. I glance sideways at God.

God glances back. “How’s that bucket list coming?” she asks, with a mischievous smile. “I know you’re inclined toward rescuing and saving, but don’t put the world, or yourself, on the list. You can save neither.”

“God, darling,” I say. “I don’t even know what ‘save’ means. And how’s your bucket list coming along?”

“Thanks for asking, sweetie,” God says. “But let’s talk about why you want to know.” This is another classic therapy maneuver; turn the question back on the client. But then God reaches over, takes a drink of my coffee, and salutes herself in one of my many mirrors. This is not a classic therapy move. Too invasive. Too intimate. Impulsively, I look straight at God, grab her cup, and take a swig. The coffee is hot, dark, and bitter. I want to spit it out, but God bows her head, palms together, touching her lips. I have the distinct impression she’s cheering me on, so I swallow and raise the cup. We look in the mirror together. It takes a practiced eye to see the beauty.

Outsourcing

People who insist on naming God after themselves irritate me. Same goes for people who display religious icons, symbols, carvings, or statues. Wise writers far before my time called these “graven images” (not a compliment) and indicated Yahweh (not their real name) isn’t thrilled with the idea of being portrayed in such limited, distorted ways. We invent names we can pronounce and create images we can use for signaling, comfort, or torture. The names and images come with suggested donations and membership guarantees. The in-crowd will be safe. The out-crowd will go to hell.

For convenience, I call this massive, creative, omnipotent bundle of compassion, wisdom, and potentiality “God.” Short, crisp, easy to spell. But wildly inaccurate, right God?

God slides into view, a pile of sticks, a taste of tea, an imagined joke, a yoga stretch, safety. An act of kindness, vivid forest green washing through a dream that would otherwise be drab. God isn’t shy or without preferences, but neither is God insistent. I wait.

“Ocean,” God says. “Egg of magpie. Eye of newt. Opposable thumbs. Lace. Elephants. Lilies. Those who are heavy-laden. Microscope, telescope, telltale stains on a well-worn soul. Yellow. Something gleaming on the far horizon. Mercy. Hallucinations, hallelujahs, hallways leading nowhere. Everywhere.”

“Stop!” I yell. “What in the world do you mean?

God laughs. “Not sure what you mean by “world.” Remember that just beyond your definitions, a little part of me is waiting for you. But no hurry. We have forever.”

“Blue,” I said. “Warm quilts, icy beer. Old friends. Leg of lamb, bark of dog, things that frighten me. Death. Justice. Slow arrivals. Snow falling innocent and pure. The brave song of a single child. A cracked bell ringing.” I stop and wink. “Am I getting the hang of it?”

God loves to play, but sometimes the rules of the game are hazy. The fire crackles and converts the dead apple tree to gas and soot. The temperature rises. A tiny fraction of feather escapes from a small tear in my down vest and floats on currents invisible to my naked eye. It appears to defy gravity in favor of other forces as it floats here and there. Or maybe it isn’t defiance. Maybe it’s a complex expression of faith: gravity, warm air, cool air, breath, the earth circling a star we’ve named the sun.

The wisp of feather finally settles, God fades, and I know that someday I will be free and undefined. But for now, I make up rules that suit me and name things that actually have no name.

Inertia

Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest. Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. This morning, both God and I are disinclined to change momentum. My feet are warm, my coffee hot, the view familiar. God is hurtling comfortably through space in his version of a Lazy Boy recliner, planets and stars aligned just so. I have no need to bother him. He sighs and settles deeper, ready for a nap. We are both at a loss to explain this uneasy contentedness. It’s not like we’ve achieved perfection. In fact, most efforts toward perfection backfire; thus, by being at rest, maybe we are making progress. And besides, stillness is a mirage. Even if God nods off, digestion continues. Neurons fire. The heart beats. The cosmic clock ticks, and the train leaves the station for parts unknown.

Two years ago, we bought 16 fluffy chicks. There are nine hens left. We gave away the five whites. A racoon got one of the reds, and I killed the rooster. It was self-defense. I was scattering food, unarmed and inattentive. I turned, and there he was, talons bared, eyes sparking with deadly malice. He flew at me. I beat him back and yelled, thinking that would take care of it. He regrouped and attacked with even greater resolve. My benign superiority was replaced with rage. How dare he come after me again? I put my hood up to protect my head, grabbed both of his stringy legs, and whirled his body in the air, using his weight as momentum to smash his head into a nearby cement block. It took three full circles to finish the job. I have few regrets.

My plans for the future include working hard to leave behind sustainable shelter and healthy garden soil. I’ve taken to writing notes to the children of the future, hiding these missives in places they might be found a hundred years from now. A hundred years. A very long time from the perspective of my fingers on the keyboard. Barely a passing twinkle in the eye of God. Barely a twinkle. But for now, God dozes open-mouthed and innocent, and I hold myself faithfully quiet. God needs the rest, and I need the façade of stillness to welcome the coming day and accept the overwhelming complexities of being momentarily assembled in the form I know of as myself.

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.