Ordinary

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The morning had gone exceptionally well so I took a minute to say thanks. God shrugged and said, “Everything’s not about you, you know.”

This seemed harsh, but yes, I was a little self-focused. From my personal perspective, slightly magical things had been happening. I’d found four of my favorite coffee mugs at Goodwill, as well as decent boots, muffin tins, and a bigger strainer for my kefir projects. Why not give the Universe a hug back?

“Because smooth sailing and blue cups prove nothing,” God said, arms crossed. “Cancer, heart disease, bad breath, and broken hearts mean nothing. They just are. They are neither omens nor proof.”

“I don’t think you understand,” I said. “That’s cruel. You have no idea what it feels like to be chronically grasping at meaning, vacillating between faith and futility. You have yourself with you all the time.”

“You’ve got a point there,” God said. “But I don’t have it all that easy either. I like seeing you happy, but when you get bogged down in misattributions, I feel the need to adjust your sights.”

Now my arms were crossed. “Fine,” I said. “Adjust away.”

Nostrils flared, stars tumbled, oceans flattened, and rudely awakened from geologic slumber, mountains rose angry and jagged. My hair fell out, my eyes rolled, and there was nothing anywhere to hang on to. Nothing but the vague and slippery idea of God. It hardly seemed enough, but it was all there was. Believe me. All there was. No blue cups. No muffin tins. No loving reassurances. No monsters to kill, no diseases to fight, no paths to discern. Nothing but this idea beyond words—this translucent whisper of the only truth, the only source, the only finality.

“Uncle,” I said to God in existential agony. “I give up. You win. It’s all you. I’m sorry I’m so needy and temporary. I know you’re lonely, even though you’re everything. But what can I do? I’m nothing.”

God startled. “Sorry. I may have over-done it. It’s true you’re nothing, but I forgot to show you that you’re also everything.” God started to fill her lungs for another out-breath.

“Stop!” I shouted, hands over ears, eyes tight shut. “Maybe another time.” I didn’t want to be everything. I needed space to pull myself back together. I wanted a kind of coherence that cannot be spoken. I longed to get in my dented old green van and drive beyond the vanishing point, contained, alone, and untouchable.

“Shotgun,” God said, trying to open the door with the broken handle. Laughter burst from the center of my self-aborption. I was delighted that this bumbling, apologetic God was determined to ride along.

“Okay,” I said, and added, “Thanks for those blue mugs, you old scalawag. I’m not as gullible as you think.”

 

Your mama told you there’d be days like this

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In the southeast corner of my life there’s a perfect circle of stone visible to anyone uphill or airborne. The northern boundary is an entirely different story. It’s a river that shapeshifts with the seasons. Water washes over the fallen cottonwood, gouges the mountain, and settles in deadly eddies.

Today, it is all too much, and paradoxically, nothing is ever enough. Not God, not people, not earth, not sky. The small and large injustices plaguing me have metastasized and lit the landscape with a cold, blue fire.

Some small part of me lives in fear. Lives in fear. Lives in fear. I’d like to kill off that part and live with more grace. That part would like to kill me off and reign as a vicious sovereign. Usually, I keep her underground and undernourished. Today, I am sorely tempted to throw her red meat. Why not? The world is awash in sovereigns eating red meat. I myself am mostly red meat.

God is a stretch of long gray sky, atmospherically unstable. Dead in the way of winter. The first signs of spring arrive from the grave—weeds, spiders, mud, and hunger. Mating rituals begin. Some will die showing off their antlers or plumage. Some will be passed over and never bear fruit. So what? That’s what I say. So what?

The gardener has turned the soil. The physician has opened a vein. The old woman is wearing her apron. The migrant has crossed the border. A child has been born. They are all doomed with the dignity of temporary flesh, but as they hold hands, as the world turns, as the rivers flow, as rocks hold firm, as the ozone shreds, as the species evolve, as fatal floods fertilize and recede, a certain and tragic joy remains. I want none of it.

For now I will stubbornly inhabit the illusion of autonomy. God has agreed to stay west of here, busily mixing the colors that will mark the setting of this particular sun. “Thank you,” I murmur, aware of the costs of such holy self-restraint. God nods.

No one goes it alone, but glittering fools pretend otherwise, and sometimes, I join them, peering at the world through my homemade periscope. With carefully-placed mirrors, you can create endless images of the same thing.

Cookies

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This morning, I stumbled into a nest of words that swarmed up like wasps and stung me. Disown, disavow, defy, dissent. Renounce, repudiate, reject, rebuff, refute, rebut. Deny. None of these words can ward off a root canal or undo a pregnancy. Even spoken together, they can’t change the meaning or length of any given life. They cannot change what is true. But they can do damage.

“Correct,” God said. She’d stopped by for coffee on her way to the city where these words are far more dangerous. “It’s tempting to deny rather than deal with things. Easier to disown than own up. But where’d you be without dissent when the tanks are at full throttle? Or refute when what is spoken is not true?”

Memories of Tiananmen Square…dissenting bodies flattened into dark stains of blood and flesh. Fast forward, flash back. Locations and causes vary, but it doesn’t end. People as pawns, people as predators. People fleeing or fighting back. People against people.

God turned the radio down and ate another cookie. “I’m not surprised that humans are a migratory species,” she said, rather randomly.

I thought about this for a minute. “Yeah, but it doesn’t seem voluntary,” I said. “People migrate because of disaster, violence, hunger…and they aren’t often well-received.” I pictured people jailed, children caged, battles, conquests, claims, displacements, paperless people pushed back or enslaved. I could see thick walls adorned with razor-sharp metal built to stem the flow of hope that comes disguised as desperation. Migration seemed even more dangerous than dissent.

“Sure,” God said. “Forced migration can be brutal. But humans also just explore. They get bored. They reach higher, dive deeper, and widen the circle. And sometimes, the stranger is welcomed with real hospitality. I like that.”

God’s placid mood slowly drained the toxins from my swollen oppositionalities. Or it could have been the beer. Or the turkeys pacing the fence. Or maybe the return of the Canadian geese, paired and gliding through the snowy sky. Whatever the source, I found the wherewithal to smile.

“I like that, too,” I said, and remembering my manners, I added, “I’m glad you stopped by. Thanks.”

“De nada,” God said. She put a cookie in her pocket. “One for the road.”

“Take more,” I said, pushing the blue plate towards her. “Take as many as you’d like.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” God said. She helped herself to every last cookie. Our eyes met. She grinned. I could see cookie crumbs caught in her teeth. Cookie crumbs on her jacket. Bits of cookie falling from her grasp, turning into a sea of cookies, mountains of cookies, a sky of cookies. A planet of fresh-baked cookies.

“How did you ever get involved with a God like that?” I asked myself as she and her cookie-filled fists faded. I shook my head, but to be honest, I have no regrets. Occasional terror, but no regrets.

God the Recycler

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Turkeys descend on the compost pile, pecking and pooping, while the earth turns this side of herself to the light, and I sit muddled in mortality. Snow glistens with insolence but like all things seen and unseen, winter’s days are numbered. The life expectancy of a wild turkey is ten years. Of the chickadee hopping around in the chokecherry branches, it’s less than two. Fighting the false claims of linearity, I remind myself that Allah, God, Creator and Redeemer, is the ultimate recycler—a saver and transformer. But I need reassurance. “Some transformations take longer than we’ll glimpse in this life, right?” I poke an elbow into God’s ribs.

“What’d you say?” God said, startled.

“I said you’re a devoted saver. A long-haul recycler.” For once, I’d snuck up on God.

“Ah. Sorry. You’re right.” God nodded, distracted. “Say, could I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I said, glad for any diversion God might provide.

“Okay. So, I’m God. Alpha and Omega. Beyond Big. And I love every measly nano-bit of my creation. I mean beyond little. And my intention has been and will always be to provide a transformation path for everything. Everyone. Always. Forever. What do you make of that?”

“I’d say I’m glad, but you’ve got your work cut out for you.” I felt relieved that God was who I thought he was.

“It’s your work, too,” God said, taking my face in his hands. “That’s why you have consciousness. A self-reflective loop.”

“Oh.” I groaned. But I let the reassurance of those warm hands sink in. “But you’ll take care of the heavy stuff, right? I mean like Hitler and Genghis Khan and nuclear weaponry and the racist and the unrepentant greedy unsaved types, and the billionaires and liars?”

“There’s more than enough work to go around.” God sighed. “I’m always in the thick of it. And of course, there are all those ‘helpers’ who think they can decide who’s ‘saved’, and how, and when…as if it’s an end state!” God snorted and did air quotes when he said the words “helpers” and “saved.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s irritating. They have formulas.”

“I know,” God said. “Magic words. Allegiances with guarantees. And get this–you know what happens when I infiltrate and hint that maybe, everyone is already saved, will be saved, and will need saving again?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t try that anymore. You’re brave.”

“Well,” God said. “You’d think their hearts would leap for joy, but no, they aren’t the tiniest bit happy for the unwashed masses. They’re disappointed. Angry, even. They argue and quote scripture–to me! They can’t stand the possibility that no one is going to hell for very long.”

“Well, that’s…Ah, that’s…” My own revenge fantasies were threatening to surface. What do you say to God at this point? Luckily, I’ve hung out with God enough to realize that I don’t want to want anyone or anything to end up separated, destroyed, or useless. God and I argue sometimes, but I hardly ever argue that someone should be damned forever. It’d be futile anyway. God is not only the source and definition of love, God is beyond stubborn. God never gives up. Though I’m not equipped to glimpse the whole, I suspect his recycling program is massive, fascinating, and makes use of both joy and fire. God’s compost is to die for.

“You’re a little scary,” I said, finally. “But I like your style.”

“Thanks,” God said back, rubbing my blue-gray hair with real affection. “I like yours too.”

Grieving in the Old Blue Chair

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Today, I sit in the light of the rising sun, rocking myself in the old blue chair–the one I loaned my mom before she died. It’s an unusually small recliner. For a few months, with planning and effort, she could get out of it by herself. But then she couldn’t. She fell and laid helpless on the institutionally-bland carpet for who knows how long? They found her tangled in the floor lamp, alive but not coherent, her body bruised from her efforts to get up. That was Mom. Never stop trying to get back up.

Dylan Thomas would have approved. Mom did not “go gentle” into any dark nights. In her stubborn way, she raged against the dying of the light. When faced with a challenge, she’d clamp her thin lips tight, stomp on the gas and shoot down the road, her ever-shrinking body taut with determination. She’d arrive in her shiny white Ford, peering at the road from just above the steering wheel. She never stayed long.

God has stopped by to reminisce. He’s wearing decades on his shoulders, and our whole upstairs has become quite crowded. “Oh God,” I say, shifting to make room, glad for the company. “Remember how she believed that when she got to heaven, she’d have to give Dad an account of how she managed the ranch after he died?” God nods, a little teary. He really admired my mom over the years. “And remember how much she gave away?” I added. God smiles with pride.

There’s not much else to say. Those last three days, death pulled her tenderly down through the layers of life until it was just her brain stem fighting for air. The Wasabi sting of emotion threatens my placid mood as I sit with the memory of her  insistent breath, sucked in and out, in and out, irregular and awful. Not a memory anyone needs to have.

After she fell out of this chair, she never sat in it again. I brought it home—slightly more worn. I’ll keep it a while.

“Tell her, will you?” I ask God.

“Tell her yourself,” God answers, and holds up a mirror Mom carried in her purse. She used it to reapply her lipstick and smooth her hair. God slips open the purple plastic cover, and I see the unadorned eyes and lips of eternity–of now and forever. I see the eyes of God, wide like a baby, and the lips of God, as full as Bob Marley’s, singing.

I fight to let God’s swaying body save me–to believe in mercy and compassion in this broken, greedy, hungry world. To use my breath for good, and welcome my demise with grace. I rock in the old blue chair, sun warming my bones, while God, as audacious and angular as ever, dips and weaves as he hammers out the beat on the steelpan drums.

Evicted

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I’m sad to report that God is no longer living in our basement. He’s been incarcerated again. We were gearing up to evict him anyway, but he saved us the trouble. Harsh words. Incarceration. Eviction. Common words, jagged and judgmental, with a false finality that lets us think we can wash our hands of the subspecies we do this to. At least until God jumps in and goes down with them.

It seems to me that God could choose a more desirable group to identify with—but no, he has to do it the hard way. He crawls into the cage, meekly accepting severe limits on his dignity and freedom. On the outside, we sigh with relief, hoping he’ll learn his lesson.

I have to deal with our abruptly vacated basement. The residue of God lingers on everything I touch as I pack up the possibilities and promises left behind. The walls have changed from light green to mud brown. The windows have sunk so low they no longer allow in any light. All the air has been breathed at least three times, and I find somber warnings tucked in every crevice.

“God,” I say in a resigned voice. “Oh, God.” I don’t expect an answer and get none, but I keep up my end of the conversation anyway. “You found shelter here, but it didn’t hold, did it? You needed something stronger. Something deeper than a basement. Something with fewer doors.” I pause, but then admit, “I’m very angry at you. This was a pointless exercise in fear. Mutually-assured failure.”

I go into the bedroom. The closet is stuffed with the things God loved the most, but everything is twisted now. Nothing holds the shape of hope or love. Each item disintegrates with my touch, and little demons scamper like spiders from the joints and ligaments of my dismembered God. I have to sit down for a while. All the blood has drained from my day to day illusions.

Excuses come to me like angels. They fan my face and bring filtered water. This is what I need to continue.

In the kitchen, I find sprouting potatoes and moldy carrots, food from the Food Bank, and flavored coffee–so many artificial additives and outdated beliefs that most things cooked here would be toxic. My own addictions parade around, proud and petty, and like God, I am powerless to rise above the fray.

That phrase Rise above the fray grows legs. Arms. Becomes a troupe of hair-sprayed dancers singing a wicked little song. “Above the fray, above the fray, she thinks she should live above the fray.” I plug my ears and hang my head, immobilized by this damning chorus.

“Well, holy shit!” God says as he appears and shoos away the frolicking vixens. “Good thing I stopped by for the final inspection.”

I gasp. God winks. The dancers dissipate, their giggling refrain the last thing to fade.

“Gotta go,” God says. The hand he offers is bruised, with dirty fingernails, greasy knuckles, and a missing finger. We shake, and he’s gone.

On the counter, I find a hastily scrawled note. It says, “Please forward any mail that comes for me. My permanent address is The Fray.”

“Okay, sweetheart,” I shout to my evicted God. “You’re a better man than I.” And I laugh at my little joke as I scrub the tub. That’s one of my jobs—to lighten the mood while God faces the music for me. I’m pretty good at it. Walruses, sunsets, hummingbirds, and small children are better, but I’m not half-bad.

Followers

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“Hey God, look,” I said, pointing at my email. “We got another follower.” My coauthor feigned deafness and pointed east toward the rising sun.

“What?” I asked. “You want the blinds up?” She nodded. I complied and continued, my voice less certain. “You know we have people who read about our chats, right?” God looked at me. It wasn’t an encouraging look, but I didn’t let up. “We have over a hundred and…”

“So?” God interrupted, drilling directly into my own deeper questions. “And you know there are literally billions of blogs, right? If words were food, there’d be no hunger,” she said with a sigh that I interpreted as judgement.

“Yeah,” I snapped. “And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Dust swirled in the aggressive light streaming into the room–glittering little particles of burned wood, dead skin, pulverized top soil. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Words to words. Ideas to ideas. I wanted to scream and rip my insides out. This can’t be it. This can’t be all.

“It’s not,” God said. “It’s not all. It never is. Get in the old white car and drive. Find a new horizon.”

I teared up. God had called my bluff. “I can’t,” I said, sorrowful. “I just can’t. This is my life. The only one I have. The only one I will ever have. I can’t risk knowing any more than I already know. I’ve arrived too late to save anyone.”

“Of course you have,” God said. “And besides, one of the engine mounts has deteriorate. It’s not entirely safe. But the tires are new. The bread is fresh. And the bodies are broken…” She choked up. “The bodies are so, so broken.”

I rushed over, sorry I’d refused her offer, sorry I knew so little, sorry I was so limited and afraid. The way forward was obscure, but I rallied. “Don’t feel bad, God,” I said, grabbing what I could of her in my arms. “I’ll give it a try. There’s a little over half a tank. Maybe we could see where that takes us, okay?”

God looked surprised and nodded. “Nothing is as it appears,” she said slowly, in her best teacher voice. She held my chin in her hand. “There will be wind this afternoon. You can hide from it, chase it, or get out that dusty kite and fly it.”

I remembered a day at the beach, long ago. My landlubber mother admired the fancy kites and bought some for the grandchildren, but she was too timid to try one herself. I wondered how things might be different had she’d tried.

My reverie was interrupted by fast-approaching thunder. The earth was throbbing, the pulse of God coming up through my bones. I looked up. Hundreds of thousands of beggars were galloping across the horizon, their horses majestic, their tattered clothing flying like flags. They waved and cheered, the sky jagged with silhouettes. They were like ET going home. A stampede of jubilation.

Even though it was very cold, the old white car started right up. God hopped in, rubbing her hands.

I turned and faced her. “Where you headed, stranger?” I asked, hiding my fear behind a pathetic John Wayne accent. God threw back her head and laughed like that was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. This helped. I put the car in gear.

“You should never pick up a hitchhiker,” God said, still chuckling.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Buckle up.”