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.”

Risk Assessment

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Sometimes, God makes it look like prayer actually works. Other times, the apparent anarchy of the universe leaks through every layer of my consciousness, and it seems more productive to praise the wind and sky, the stones and soil–more logical to buy a lottery ticket than meekly ask about the right way forward. But then, things happen. Like when God stopped by Sunday evening with eroded teeth and a need for housing.

“First things first,” God said. “I’m a felon.” His hands were shaking a little. “I’ll understand if it’s beyond you to give me shelter.” He went on to explain that a church on the edge of town was praying he’d find a place, so if this didn’t work, that was okay. The right place would appear.

I resented this. It felt like a conspiracy. Who was this, really? God? The Devil? A broken human, standing in? The prayers of the people pelted me like driving rain. I was soaked in a matter of minutes, chilled to the bone, indignant.

“So, ahhh.” I said, stalling. “References?” God provided phone numbers.

“Children?”

God ducked his head. There were tears. He said “Yes, long story. They won’t be living here with me. I’ve gotta stabilize. Find a place.”

A combination of cologne and cigarette smell oozed from his clothing.

“Do you smoke?” I asked, looking for an easy out.

“Yes, but only outside. One thing at a time, y’know?”

It’s a terrible thing when God drapes himself in the needs of the world and crowds in alongside a regular day. Maybe this is why I keep my days so full–brimming with quirks, needs, fears, and imagined emergencies. Maybe, too, this is why I keep myself surrounded with the square footage I call home.

But way deep inside, I suspect there’s no such thing. We make up the idea of home, but it’s fleeting, easily blown away in a driving wind, swept downstream in the flood, or swallowed when the earth convulses. God and I often sit by the fire in my cozy living room and contemplate such things. When she’s like that, I’m happy and warm. When he’s like this—dependent, defenseless–I recoil.

My son-in-law offers a kind word and at least a dollar to every shady-looking street person who approaches him. Even some who don’t. He shakes hands. I’ve watched this many times, mentally making excuses for myself and my judgments. He’s strong and quick. I’m old and vulnerable. I shrink back.

But this time, I rally. A part of me I often ignore knows this: We’re meant to body surf on waves of compassion, not hole up with our cronies or shout clever slogans from behind police barriers. We’ve got to risk being used, bruised, fooled, and foiled.

“Okay, God,” I said. “I’ll call some references.” He nodded and left without pleading. I like that in a needy person.

The references were glowing. A parole officer, respectfully noting how hard these guys try. How little they have to work with. A business person, willing to crawl out on a limb. And me. Gullible? Maybe. But hell. What’s there to lose?

I’ve rented the basement to God. We’ll see how that works out.

When God Is Old

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God was so old today, I hardly recognized him. Not a vision of loveliness, by any stretch. But should God be lovely? Youthful? Sexy? Yes, in my opinion, that would be nicer. But I didn’t turn away. I gazed on the decrepit body, looked into eyes filmy with cataracts. Tolerated the musty odor. Sank my teeth into the putrid truth of decline, flesh draped loosely on frail bones, a framework coming apart.

“What’re you up to?” I asked with false cheeriness, hoping for a rapid transformation. God can do that—one thing one moment, another the next. In the blink of an eye, God can go from bird to mosquito, river to refugee, pauper to king. But the only blink today was a slow one, as God’s focus landed laboriously on me.

“Hi, stranger,” he said, with a wry smile. That was all it took to transform my feeble friendliness into open hostility. This passive-aggressive, accusatory, guilt-inducing shriveled up mockery of life, insinuating I hadn’t been visiting him enough? Acting as though we’re such good friends, like I should visit every day, like I should move in, like I owed him something? I sat silent, but I fumed inside. How dare he try to prevail on my time? I have a life, you know. Why is he old like this?

But with God, if you think it, you may as well say it. His head dropped to his chest, clearly hurt, maybe even afraid. “Sorry,” he said, drawing into himself even further.

I was stricken and ashamed. God weathers all sorts of rejections, but mine seemed to cause him real pain. “No, I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it. I calmed myself and waited for him to lift his head again. I showed him pictures of the grandchildren and garden. I gave him three small beets, an onion, and a large bouquet of deep green parsley. I reached over and patted his translucent hand. “When will this be over?” I asked, with the little patience I could muster.

He didn’t respond, but I knew the answer. Always. Never. God is a transitional verb, unconstrained. God is a hall of mirrors, a blaze of glory on a far horizon. A voluptuous virgin, a greasy-haired teen. But today and forever, God is an old, old man. None of this is acceptable to my primitive mind. My digital watch constantly flashes an ever-changing hour, but the knobby joints in my fingers still bend. God and I hold hands. He eventually nods off and I am free to go. I step into the slipstream of an apparent day, trying to accept the transitory nature of all things real.

 

Piano

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God and I took a piano apart today. We had help. Even so, it didn’t go especially well. The carcass, keys, pedals, hammers–everything had been overrun by mice, so the smells were unpleasant. The rusted screws and bolts were unpleasant. The mouse nests were worse than unpleasant. But the conversation we had with the backbone of the piano—the tightly strung strings that make the music—that was worth it all. The intricate innards whispered otherworldly commentary every time we made a move. We salvaged the motherboard, serenaded by jangled synchronicities and disturbing harmonics.

Now we are resting. God is a broken, decrepit piano. I am a nymph with a sore back. God is a stone, gleaming among stones in the hot sun. I am a glass of clear water. God is dimming the sun, pulling clouds around in the sky. I’m old, longing for ice cream. God is a worry and a bother. I am a sweaty artist, a two-bit wordsmith. God is color and dirt. We are calm together.

“Ah, it is good to work hard and then rest, isn’t it?” God asks. “I like you this way.”

“What way?” I ask. “And anyway, aren’t you supposed to like me no matter what?”

God laughed. “Yeah. You got me there. But I mean, relaxed. Not anxious or angry. You spend so much time revved up. And I spend so much time reminding you that you’re wasting energy. You aren’t as good looking when you’re worried. Sometimes, you aren’t even nice.”

“But, but…” I sputtered. I knew it was true. In fact, there are days I like not being nice. There are times I’m happy to be a cynical hypocrite–driven, desperate, and nasty.

“It’s okay,” God said. “I get there myself occasionally.”

“I know,” I said, relieved and then stricken. “And at those times, you are REALLY not good looking.”

For a nano-second, I knew the magnitude of God’s misery even though it vastly exceeds human understanding. The writhing pain of God screams through eternity, collapsing galaxies in its wake. It’s the vicious emptiness of black holes, lonely dark matter avalanching through the space-time continuum. We carry only the tiniest portion of this desolation in our deepest bones. We have no choice. I have to remind myself it is an honor.

“It’s hard, but I try to love you,” I said to this pitiful face of God. It seemed a paltry offering, but it was all I had.

“I know,” God said, the face regaining some of the vibrant color that feeds my soul. “And it helps. Let’s go strum those piano strings again.”

It was hot, but we went back to the shed to touch the vibrating center of all things salvaged. All things sacred. In the end, there is only one song.

Feeding birds

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“Hey, God,” I said. “Should I feed the birds?”

“Say what?” God said, puzzled.

“Should I feed the birds? I mean like buy bird seed, put it in a feeder, fill it up, and feed them?”

“That is entirely up to you,” God said, gleaming bright yellow from the feathers of a goldfinch, scarlet from the blackbird wings. I remembered God’s hysterical laughter at the mating dance of the sandhill crane earlier this spring. Why would she not endorse the idea of bird-feeders? She obviously gets a kick out of birds.

“But should I?” I asked again. “I can afford bird feed. I could feed them and give them a place to splash around, too.”

“You sure could,” God said. “I’ve been doing it for eons. They like thistle seed. And they’re not that picky about where they splash around. They’re like little kids; they love puddles.”

“I don’t like thorns,” I said, frowning. “And I don’t like puddles. Mosquito breeding grounds.”

“Yes,” God said. “You aren’t a bird. Birds see things differently. You’re not a child anymore, either.”

“Sheesh,” I said. “I know that. Why do you have to point out the obvious instead of answering me directly?” This was becoming one of those exasperating conversations where the tables were soon to turn. I could feel it in my bones.

Sure enough, God said, “Excellent question. Why do I have to point out the obvious over and over? Why do I have to bend over backwards, forwards, sideways, up, down, and under? Why do I have to repeat myself ad infinitum? Why do you choose angst over joy? Why do you fear your mortality? Why do you hide in your greed? Why don’t you sing or dance or play more often?”

“I knew you’d do this to me. I ask a simple question, and you turn into a bird, and then get all defensive and blame me for not…”

“Not what?” God said, putting a big, oil-stained hand on my shoulder. The fingernails were atrocious. It was workaday God. “Not what?” he repeated.

I was stymied. I felt blamed and guilty but I couldn’t put my finger on why.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’m sad, God. And angry. It’s making me dull-witted.”

God laughed. “Basically, just remember this: It’s all chicken feed and beautiful brown eggs. Get out there and love the most obnoxious people you can find. Grab my hand and listen to their hatefulness with interest and compassion. Smile beatifically.”

It was my turn to say, “Say what?”

And we left it at that. I had lists to make. Weeds to pull. A self to feel sorry for, and a country and world to feel sickened by. And God? Who knows? Probably busy forgiving someone. That’s my best guess.