In Praise of the Human Way

Stubbed my toe this morning because I left the light off thinking I’d reduce my carbon footprint by groping my way through a dark place. If I’d been more mindful the plan might’ve worked. My toe paid the price. The capacity to learn from our mistakes is a human phenomenon that squares off with denial–a constant horse race; the outcome undecided.

“Why?” I ask God as I run my fingers over the rough surface of a threatening sky and remember my overfilled barns. I have long splinters festering with resentment. The rain advances and recedes. I live in the eye of my own perfect storm, held together with frayed orange twine.

“Pain is not the best instructor, ” God says, looking slightly impatient. “You don’t have to hurt yourself to get things done.”

“Oh, but I do,” I counter with righteous indignation. “Isn’t that what suffering is all about?”

A flash of anger crosses God’s face, and the earth shudders. Angels with enormous teeth bite their own fingers, knuckles crunching like popcorn. Birds feathered in brilliant blue dip and glide as if they owned the air and then crash into the window. I bow my head and wait, penitent but unwilling to cede my point. Never back down in a fight with God. She’ll spit you out like bad water. Her respect for you will fade like the waning moon and rebuilding things will be costly. Better to ask forgiveness but hang on to what you think you know. You’ll be proven wrong, or you won’t.

God reaches toward me. I flinch but stand my ground. She runs her fingers over the deep contours of my misshapen ideas so tenderly I barely feel the touch. It’s the warm, moist exhale of creation, the murmurings of the Mother.

She moves me to disturbed terrain and directs my gaze to the dandelion– vixen and vagabonds, mavens and madrigals–all things brilliantly defiant. Flattened and subdued, shy strands of spring bend toward me, and I almost understand. In the place where I can still expand, I do, and there’s God bustling around, her apron filled with eggs, rhubarb in her fists. She is going to bake something nice for dessert, and I will help. I am setting this intention: I will help. This is what humans can do. And, yes, perhaps sometimes, it doesn’t have to hurt.

When the Fat Lady Sings

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For the 17th time, we’re remodeling our interior space(s) with upcycled materials that require varying levels of tolerance and creativity. In this, as in all things in my life, God worms his way in and turns whatever I’m doing into a parable. It’s all about him. Some might find this reassuring. I don’t. Here’s what I know: In contrast to me, the Contractor-in-Chief always obtains the correct permits to begin remodeling. Then he rolls up his sleeves and works like the devil to upcycle your innards. Seventeen times is nothing to him. It’s a rolling remodel–a lifetime composting project. And here’s something ugly: In your innermost being, there’s asbestos, black mold, dry rot, and highly combustible chemical substances that must be properly stored but often are not.

Fire happens frequently. Like many in my species, I start little blazes that if left unchecked would burn the entire project to the ground. God’s a skilled firefighter, but sometimes he decides to call in the whole damn volunteer fire department. It’s embarrassing. After the flames subside, platitudes and excuses abound. The crowd is pleased, hell freezes over, and I skate away on ice I know to be very, very thin. The cows start for home, and the Fat Lady warms up in the wings, octaves surging like a dangerous river. There’s no doubt she will sing. She’s the most voluptuous incarnation God ever assumes. Such lungs. That dark cleavage rising, those magnificent breasts; objects of desire and dread. This is where we’ll all find ourselves eventually; in the arms of the Fat Lady smothered in love; upcycled beyond recognition. Transformed.

“And in the meantime?” I wonder to myself. God smiles, soot clinging to his mustache, circling his nostrils. He tosses me a hard hat, a yellow suit, and a big, cherry red fire extinguisher. “Keep trying,” he says. “You’ll improve over time.”

“Why?” I moan. Doubt lines my face. “Even if I get good–really, really good–it won’t be enough.” God remains silent, eyes generating their own searing light. “And I might get burned trying,” I add, feeling sorry for myself. Who really wants the eyes of God focused on them?

“Of course you will,” God says, his voice kind but firm. “But what’s a little scorch here and there?” He waves a crusty hand out the window of his firetruck, slips into the turn lane, and disappears.

 

 

Lists

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There are so many things on my list today: Paint the coffee table orange; bake the leftovers with lots of cheese and spices to disguise the blandness; locate the next hot yoga class and begin making excuses for not going; do some laundry at somebody’s house; get out of my pajamas; buy a carrot peeler and cabinet knobs; make a cameo appearance in the happiness class; check my email; watch it snow.

But the snow stopped. The knobs are the wrong color, and bland isn’t always bad. The time on my hands is faintly bioluminescent, but there isn’t enough light to do anything but pray, palms together, a gesture of peace. Gratitude. Acquiescence. This, while the world has sunk so deep into the chaos of self that no one can tell an enemy from a friend. The bottom lines have given way. We’ve fallen through. Again.

Generally, solitary confinement is a form of punishment often classified as torture, but solitary confinement of the soul is a necessary discipline for recalibration. For close encounters. For unwinding the knot. Time to let the long tongue and wagging tail of the ever-eager God cleanse the wounds and loosen the grime of everyday life.

But God is not a dog today. Her calendar is filled with boring meetings, delicate negotiations, and a stint of volunteer work at the homeless shelter. She’s doing a reading tonight that will likely be well-attended—I’m glad for her, but I’m jealous. I don’t like waiting on such a busy God.

To my great delight, there’s a glimmer of God in the corner. She shakes her head as I try to snuggle in. “Not now,” she says. “You need to wait.”

“No!!” I wail, “I hate waiting. It makes me very, very anxious.”

“Sorry,” she says. “But you can do it. I’m counting on you.”

“Counting on me to wait?” I ask, stalling, pretending not to know.

“You can’t trick me,” God says, fading.

“Yes I can, yes I can, yes I can,” I yell to the Great Disappearance.

I tell myself I’m lucky she stops by as often as she does, but that’s not how I feel. The time on my hands has turned blood red, and my fingerprints are everywhere. “Get centered,” I tell myself. “You’re making a mess.” Waiting is a transformative torture. The long way home. I feel like a fool when I wait. I picture God, busy dishing up soup, teasing the tattered men with her sexy winks, her arms slung around the shoulders of women, repeatedly stoned. That’s how it is. She’ll come by later, and I’ll rub her feet.

I Can Move the Iris

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A lot of people like autumn. I don’t. Sure, autumn lovers have their reasons, and I have mine. Not worth a debate, except maybe internally, as yet again, I find myself inspecting my belly button. “Why do you not like autumn, Rita?” I ask myself. “Too much death. Too many endings. Too much work. Things to put to bed. The threats. The oncoming winter,” I answer. But I’ve now distracted myself. The mention of belly button has flipped me out of my autumn reveries to my memories of my actual belly button. With both pregnancies, it popped out of its usual spiral, protruding like a small boy’s misplaced penis. No smooth, picturesque baby bump for me.

People conscious of appearances tried to shame me into wearing looser tunics or thicker tops. They suggested bandaids or an inner body wrap to push that thing back in. I resisted, trying to be comfortable with all aspects of the cataclysmic set of bodily accommodations entailed in pregnancy. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? Or as Popeye asserts, “I yam what I yam.” I didn’t pop my belly button out on purpose. It was just part of the process. But I remember the shame. Waves of shame for both my lack of perfection and my refusal to disguise that disappointing imperfection.

God and I frequently tangle around these issues. Pregnancy and childbirth; these are not walks in the park. Of course, neither are knee replacements, starvation, braces, kidney stones, or war. Some suffering is voluntary. Some suffering has a purpose, a desired outcome. But some suffering seems pointless and avoidable. And the little ones, the powerless ones, the poor—these always suffer first and most. These are God’s peeps. If God has gone missing, this is where you’ll find her, suffering alongside. I don’t like this. I like this far less than autumn. I could endure endless autumn if God would just step up and end the vast and unjust suffering of innocent, powerless people.

And of course, I just lied.

Two years ago, I planted the iris bulbs in an unfortunate location. The weeds and native grasses have completely overtaken them, giving me a daily view of negligence and defeat. I wasn’t thoughtful. I wasn’t perfect. I acted expediently instead of wisely. Oh God, I need to save one hungry child, one mangled family, one small patch of soil. I’ve got to get something right before I die. Please. I’m begging here. Please.

The arms of God are crossed. The eyes of God are piercing. The heart of God is coursing the blood of God through the arteries of my over-exposed existence. “You can move the iris bulbs,” she says. “This would be the time.”

As I mentioned, I don’t like autumn. It’s nearly too much for me.

Slutty Shoes

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Sometimes, life-on-earth sashays by in slutty shoes, feigning a seductive innocence. She beckons with a bend of her little finger and whispers. “Come here, you sexy thing. I want you.” But the delicacy is an illusion, the promise of eternal youth, false. Life-on-earth has muscular legs and sturdy ankles. A swift kick can leave bruises. Break bones. And then, who’s to blame? The idea of God is an easy target; I confess to using it myself on occasion. But the real God runs away from simplicity like a wild-eyed colt. The real God crawls onto your lap like an old dog. The real God knows what happened on Mars and is already aware of the first name of the last child. God can perfectly enact the mating dance of the Sandhill crane and knows how to apply a tourniquet to stanch the flow of blood.

I know this because the faint smell of wet dog often lingers on my clothes (and we don’t have a dog). I know this because I’m relieved that the Martians (and all our kinfolk from other planets) are loved, have been loved, will be loved. The Sandhill cranes glide by in pairs, the name of the last child will be as holy as the first, and when it’s chilly, I pull a patchwork quilt of tourniquets around my shoulders.

But none of this stops me from flirting shamelessly with life-on-earth, hoping to get more than my share. She’s so dazzling, so tasty. My DNA matters, doesn’t it? My ideas? Don’t I deserve second helpings and the rapt attention of those around me?

God floats into the room, shaped like lips, shimmering crimson. The lips pucker up.

“Unpucker,” I say, and sit up straight and tall. “Not ready.”

The lips relax into a goofy grin. “I know,” they say. “But don’t you love this shade of red? It’s called Kiss of Death.”

“Funny,” I say. “Very funny.” God and I have a good laugh. The luscious lips frame God’s open mouth, teeth like mountains, ribbons of saliva catching the light.

Life-on-earth sits down beside me. She’s grown pale in comparison to the glorious mouth of God. She’s wearing sensible shoes. “Shall we go?” I ask. She nods, looking a little worse for the wear. I pat her shoulder and add, “But let’s keep it honest. I like you as a friend, but it can never be anything more.”

She nods again, crying a little, but handling it. I cry a little too. The sadness is unavoidable, but there’s a lot to do today. We need to get on with it.

“You’re just a short-term expression of something much bigger,” I explain to her as we get in the pick-up and drive across the field.

“Yeah, I guess,” she says. “But so are you.”

“Oh, I know,” I say. I slow down so we can hold hands and watch the eagles circling the river. Majestic and hungry.

Jogging with God

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It makes sense to run before it gets even hotter, but I’m fighting with myself. Making excuses, scolding, cajoling, promising rewards. I notice myself talking to myself. Sheesh. Consciousness is clearly evolution’s most daring experiment. I’m often in the vicinity of my intentions but sometimes I hang myself in that self-reflective loop.

God sits back on his haunches, watching. I see his silhouette on the far horizon, warming his fat hands over the fire of a steadily rising sun. I see myself, a speck of indignation, a tiny sip of fresh water; not impressive, but tenacious. The fallen angels are composting into something wonderful. There’s been too much rain this year. It’s unnaturally green, uncomfortably humid. Twin fawns leap back and forth over windrows of molding hay as I reluctantly start jogging up the lane.

It’s slow going. I’m drenched in sweat and my Nikes are slapping the pavement ungracefully. God slips alongside. His feet would make a thunderous noise with the weight he carries, but they don’t touch the ground today. He’s helicoptering along, a corpulent, cagey companion cawing with the crows, catching clumps of drifting cotton. I’m hoping the neighbors don’t drive by, but I’m glad for God’s presence, such as it is. I sometimes fall and break bones, get pelted by hail, bitten by bugs, or startled by rattlesnakes. Having God along…hmmm…well. Actually, it might help. It might not.

“I can hear you,” God says, a little sarcastically. He’s peddling backwards, a little ways ahead.

“And I can hear you,” I say back. “Beastly hot, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, this accelerated climate change is a bitch,” God says.

“I don’t like it when you talk like that,” I say. I try to pick up the pace.

“You want platitudes?”

“No.”

“Aphorisms?”

“No.”

“Big syllable reassurances?”

“No.”

“Ah,” God says. “I know what you want. You want a song.” He belts out his own version of Taylor Swift, “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, but shake it off. Shake it off.” He jiggles his bum.

God’s right. The song helps. I dance along, doing some jiggling myself, happily distracted. Shake it off. Shake it off. Oops! We both dive for the borrow pit as a big truck rattles by.

“These country roads aren’t the best for joggers,” God says, as we climb back up the slope. He resumes the hard-driving melody, and I use the beat to motivate myself toward home.

“I saw you watching the world this morning,” I say between breaths.

“Yeah. Up early. Couldn’t sleep. I love this little planet. Still hoping you don’t wreck it for yourselves, but all bets are off.”

“BETS?” I yell. “This is not a betting matter.”

“Right,” God says. “Sorry. You’re absolutely right. It’s all about consciousness. Human choice is pivotal on so many fronts. But if you were betting, where’d you put your money?”

“Not sure,” I say.

“Me neither,” God says. We find some shade, resting in the euphoria that follows a good work-out. “But thanks for the run.”

The Frogs of Summer

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Every damn morning, the frogs of summer ruin my dark, silent sleep. Their exuberant greetings of first light pull me into resentful consciousness. I don’t quite want to kill them, but I can understand people who do. This is never how I greet first light. Couldn’t they stay hunkered down, mudded over until midmorning? Why do they go on croaking even after night fall? And the birds. And the river running high and brown, reckless and noisy. And for that matter, the sun and earth, in a morbid relationship that results in harsh, insistent light for far too long. A hot radiance I can’t handle. I need my rest. Where is darkness when I need it? The silence that renews my soul? Creation is badly done. Royally screwed up.

“I should smite you,” God says, joining me on the couch. “You aren’t very grateful.”

“Yeah? Well, I should smite you,” I say back. I know who’d win, but when I’m in this kind of mood, I don’t care.

“Smite away,” God says.

I realize I don’t actually know how smiting works. “I may need some help,” I admit. God tries to hide the smirk.

“So, you want me to help you smite myself?”

“Yes,” I say. “Exactly.”

It occurs to me that this is a common conversation for God. The cursing and fist-shaking are familiar. The selfish pleading, blaming, walk-aways, come-backs, the stomping of little feet, crossing of puny arms. All these Centers-of-the-Universe, throwing cheerios on the floor, grinning, kicking, bowls on heads. God-directed road rage, drunken stupors, broken promises, punched out lights. Lack of skill is no barrier; we are blindly determined smiters. God absorbs as much smiting as possible, but there comes a time when God lays down on the pavement so we can see all the ways we are smiting ourselves.

In the raucous light of dawn, this smite-absorbing being has curled up tight beside me on our oversized couch, innocent as a napping puppy. So circular and cute, I’m lulled into complacency. But then I remember the sharp teeth, my thin skin, and the long day ahead.

Wrestling Match

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I’m lost in a pile of morning words, thrashing like a rainbow trout that has taken the bait, uncertain if I am a victim of catch and release or soon to sizzle. The bait? Fame and fortune. Vast influence. The ultimate saving of the planet. Or at least meaning beyond pulling the stubborn cheat grass in the raised beds. The strawberries are in trouble and the chives. Even the mint is being overtaken.

“What if I were the governor or a movie star?” I think to myself.

“You’d still die,” God thinks back.

“What if I were rich beyond measure?” I think to myself.

“You are,” God thinks back.

“But I could be richer,” I counter with narrow eyes.

“Sure, but why? Even the outer limits are limits.”

“I don’t like that.” I shook my head.

“I know.” God smiled.

So apparently this day is going to inch forward and end–like every other day and no other day. It’s hardly begun, but as I argue with God, each moment slips quietly into the past. I watch the wind move the new leaves. They’re relatively secure for the coming season, assuming no tornadoes or killing frosts. What a brilliant celebration of all that is transitory.

“God,” I said, “You are a pain in the butt.”

“So are you,” God said as she sat down in one of the chairs that scratch the floor if you move around very much.

“What if I bought a camper van and drove to DC and parked and protested for the rest of my life? Huh? What then? Would that fix things? What if I piled my possessions on the sidewalk and labeled them ‘FREE’? What if I shaved my head and wore a robe? What if I climbed a tree and sat in the limbs on hunger strike? What if I chained myself to the wall? What if I gave everyone the right kind of light bulb? What if I broke all the glass in sight, shattering everyone’s phony security? What if, God? What if?”

“Sure,” God said. “Those all sound feasible. Which wall and how big of chain?”

I swore and threw my beer bottle at God. God ducked, spun around, and rammed a shoulder into my stomach. We fell like children wrestling in green grass and dandelion fluff. We shouted and shrieked in glee, startling a magpie and the neighbors. Our molecules were drunk on a bacterial invasion that made us come apart. To my surprise, I liked disintegrating. God and me. Me and God. The Great I AM. The Jokester, the Coyote, the Source of All That Is. And me. Me.

“Don’t forget the bacteria,” God said as we lied on our backs, panting. I shrugged.

“You know, God, I’m kind of artistic,” I said.

“True,” God said. “Maybe go with that.”

 

The God of Paunchy-Bellied Men

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“Hey,” God said, all cheerful and awake, sitting cross-legged in the living room. “I’ve been writing some poetry. Want to hear it?” It was way too early.

“Uh, sure,” I said, groping my way toward coffee. I suspected I’d need my half-beer too. I brought it along and sat down, as polite and attentive as I could be. God seemed a little shy. “It’s entitled Lavender,” he said. He took a breath and read:

I am the God of paunchy-bellied men

with emaciated butts

and their magnificent  

big-thighed women.

 I have gradually loosened my grip

on anything

that isn’t lavender.

God paused and looked at me. “Oh, boy,” I thought. “What do I say to that?” I waited, hoping there was more, but God sat silent, trying to hide his neediness. “Interesting,” I finally said. “Tell me about lavender.”

God crossed his arms. “It’s a poetic ploy.” He shrugged. “I like the sound of lavender…and that part about me losing my grip. Dramatic, right? Me losing my grip?”

“Hmmm. The sound of lavender,” I echoed, worried about where this could go.

“Lavender” God said in a frantic voice. “Budding lilac lavender, warm blanket lavender, baby lavender, calming lavender. Or what about acid lavender, neon lavender, dense, alarming lavender? That lavender on the edge of certain molds. So much to consider about lavender.” God’s breathing was ragged.

My therapist heart kicked in. There was something going on here that scared me, but I had to try and help. “Your grip?” I said gently. “And those paunchy-bellied men?”

Black clouds gathered and cracked. Lightning lit the bones of the room. Sadness flooded through broken windows, thin and murky. The apocryphal gruel they serve in soup lines came to mind. It was hard to think, hard to move. Something awful was afoot. I grabbed God’s hand and we fled out the back, down the alley. Hordes of paunchy-bellied men were strewn about like willow branches after a storm. We leapt over the spent carcasses, scrambling, tripping, picking each other up, laughing and crying hysterically.

The alley dead-ended, and a thousand big-thighed women were waiting, like they always wait. They took us in, no strings attached, and fed us a hearty evening meal. Nothing about any of this was lovely or right. It just was.

Utterly exhausted, I rolled myself under a lilac hedge to sleep, but God stayed up until all hours, chewing the fat with the women, reliving the glory days. Their delight disgusted me. “We’re doomed,” I thought as I dozed off. “We’re all fucking doomed.”

An eternity later, God shook me awake. “Shhh,” he said as he took me in his arms. We flew straight toward the fiery orange sun, rising hot in the delicate lavender sky.

 

Perfection

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A lot of my inventions don’t work out very well, but usually this doesn’t stop me from trying again. The lure of perfection shimmers on the horizon. For example, I dreamed up a way to install window trim that would reduce cold drafts, but it turns out that this  severely complicates the process of taking down the shades–to the point of aching arms, hammered thumbs, obscenities and temporary defeat.

So this morning, with the shade half in and half out, I’m thinking about perfection. Is intention enough? Does anything fit the definition for long? Does detaching transform imperfection? Achieving perfection seems both precarious and potentially boring. Some people think God is perfect, but if there’s a God, it’s unlikely she’s boring. Is perfection an end state or a process?

“Both,” God said, slowly materializing near the woodstove. “And hey, did I slip in gradually enough this time?” She was dripping eucalyptus oil into the hot water, trying to calm me down and perhaps, dilute the odor of this morning’s burned toast or maybe the toxic fumes from the varnish I’d applied to an imperfect tabletop last night.

I nodded. “Want some tea?” I asked, my voice tight, embarrassed about the window shades and the black crusts of toast.

“Sure,” she said.

The eucalyptus was stinging my eyes. “You may’ve overdone that essential oil thing,” I said, as I put the tea kettle on the stove.

“Well,” God said. “Essence is hard to calibrate.”

I gave God a glance. “Why do you say things like that?” I asked. “You’re so obscure and elusive.”

“Am not,” God said. It was such an adolescent response I smiled despite myself as I put tea leaves in the boiling water. The scent of spearmint mingled with varnish and eucalyptus. The aroma of burned toast had dissipated, being a more transitory odor.

“So, about perfection,” I said. “Is that what you are? Is it possible? How would you define it?”

God blew across the surface of her tea. “It’s like…well…” She eased back in the rocker, looking thoughtful. “Seeds,” she said finally, glancing out the window. This hit a sore spot. An irregular layer of snow blanketed the garden beautifully, but the last few summers, that damn garden had resisted anything near perfection. Trying to address the problems had only made them worse. Things had gotten ugly. I felt a bit defensive.

God continued, trying a different angle. “Perfection lives inside perception. Perfection is not the thing itself.” But my mood had deteriorated. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” I said. “Want some toast?”

“Sure,” God said, sighing. “But no jelly.” I nodded. “And I’ll try not to burn it,” I said in a self-deprecating tone.

“Perfect,” God said with an impish grin. I knew she was joking around, but I felt like burning the toast on purpose.

“Either way, sweetheart,” God said. “I’ll eat it either way.”