Settling

There are short-lived truths that go sour, longer truths that offer comfort but eventually wear out like a well-loved quilt, and eternal truths that hide among the bulrushes, debts, and sanctuaries. Physical punishment or harsh words will stop unwanted behavior in its tracks, but the motives will dive underground and propel from below.

“Ok,” God says, “Then grace is like a shovel.”

Your offspring don’t own you, and you don’t own your offspring, and we are all the offspring of many. Boundaries are a constant negotiation, but we trundle along, fostering and adopting, breaking and healing, astonished and befuddled; the urges and joys of reproduction writ large.

“Of course,” God says. “My image in the darkened glass.”

There are forces that undermine balance, reduce generosity, and recast restraint as shameful. The meaning of enough is flattened by trucks exceeding the speed limit. Avarice can be dressed up to look like self-care, and acquisition is a seductive master, a damsel in distress, a mirage of power.

“Yes,” God says. “And forgiveness is a home-cooked meal.”

Fear is a natural response to the threat of pain, death, or humiliation. Belligerence is also a natural response. Hatred is the venom produced by fear and belligerence. The poison flows both directions—outward and inward.

“True,” God sighs. “And the antidote…”

God’s voice fades. I lean in, hoping God just needs to clear her throat or something. God is going to say the antidote is love, right? Or maybe compassion, or courage, or sacrifice? Silence reigns. No singing river. No chattering birds. No traffic. No wind. Not even the distant opening or closing of doors.

“Is this it? The antidote is nothing?” I think to myself.

“Noooo,” my inner self protests. I realize I’m dangerously close to settling for a short truth, even if i know it will grow bitter with time, even if I know it will lose its shape like cheap underwear. As long as it disguises the taste of the poison in my mouth–I don’t care.

I look straight into the vibrant universe and hope for a reassuring word.

“Sorry,” God finally says. “I’m all out of platitudes.”

“I don’t mind,” I say, thrilled that God has spoken. “I can handle that. Have a nice day.” I chuckle.

“You crack me up,” God says, laughing. We stand face to face, our foreheads touching, eyes closed, breathing. Then we link arms and walk to the garden to plant a few more marigolds among the rows of kale.

Found Art

Right now, I’m alone and hungry, and the relative silence I count on for creativity is hampered by the bathroom fan which is running because when I took our garbage down, I found a magnetic toothbrush haphazardly stuck to our dumpster and brought it home because it made me laugh, and I had some spray paint that would make it even funnier, so I took it out on the deck and sprayed it dark red, but the spray paint smelled toxic and it’s too cold to leave it outside to dry, so the toothbrush is drying in the bathroom: loud fan, thin door.

I’m going to leave myself hungry for a while because disruption and deprivation are rare for most of us and even small approximations are revealing. I have a chocolate bar at my elbow and granola a few feet away. I have Yo-Yo Ma ready to play on YouTube, and I’m fairly certain God would stop by for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. I have only to click, access, or ask. But I’m not going to. For this moment: No food. No silence. No God. No music.

Under my nose, my hands come together between paragraphs, and I realize that due to definitions, the No-God option is unavailable. Maybe this is a good thing. I breathe deeply and catch a whiff of that sharp smell escaping from the bathroom. I wonder if this is penance. I wonder if I need mercy.

I wonder if I could think more clearly if I had a bowl of granola. Mercies aren’t necessarily merciful, and God’s ever-presence is neither blessing nor curse. I wonder if I could spray paint God to increase visibility. I hear a chuckle. I wonder if I could make God hungry. I hear a groan.

“Fine,” I say to God. “You may as well materialize. Put your feet up.  Enjoy the view. Want some tea? Granola?”

God infuses the room diaphanous, translucent. Not hungry. Not visible. My hands elongate, my feet lose sensation, my vision expands, distorts, softens.

“No thanks,” God says, without making a sound.

“Then why are you here?” I ask, in an ungracious way.

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” God says, lifting a line from a recent detective show. “Besides, how do you know I’m here?”

I leave the unsteady room to check on the toothbrush. It’s dry. I wave it at God. “Seriously, what do you want? Why do you come by?” The toothbrush snaps itself to the refrigerator thanks to a magnet of considerable strength. But it’s kind of creepy sticking out there, deep red, reminiscent of bleeding gums. This won’t do. I need a gallery for found art and profound despair, and I need a cathedral where I can paint God into a corner. Both are unlikely.

I click, and Yo-Yo Ma begins to perform. I pour a bowl of granola and smile at God who has coalesced into a paintbrush dipped in turquoise. I’m working on a self-portrait. I’m not sure which colors to use, but for now, turquoise might be perfect.

Black Holes/White Flags

Once upon a time, God appeared in the living room and walked straight to the wood stove, extending his hands toward the fire. He seemed chilled and uptight. After a while, he gave me a half-eyed glance and in a choked voice said, “I sure hope I’m the kind of God you write about.”  Mystified, I mustered a reassuring smile.

Another time, God blew through the top of the cottonwoods, a holy howling terror, uprooting trees. Powerlines sparked and whipped like snakes. She pounded her chest, lifted skirts, and inverted the umbrellas intended to thwart the rain. “You will not stay upright,” she shrieked across the expanse. “You will not stay dry and there’s nowhere to hide.”

I hid.

God peeked down into my hiding place. “Sorry,” she said. “You can come out now.”

And then there was the time it drizzled miserably for days, and my sad friend told me she was dying, and the only God I could find was a four-legged critter that appeared to be a dog. God did some tricks, jumped on my friend’s lap, licked her face, and for a while, there was joy. Muted and resigned, but joy.

I slipped outside. Children were splashing in a threatening puddle. One of them kicked off bright yellow boots and squished black mud between her toes, barefoot and triumphant. I watched from the sidelines, silently cheering her on.

I’m remembering these times this morning as I sip a very stale beer—a gift from a stingy God who gives me leftovers–less than I think I deserve. But waste not, want not. And besides, what does deserve have to do with it? Is love earned or bestowed? Is it passed along or is each scrap absorbed into the black hole where nothing is ever enough and time itself has no meaning?

“Good morning,” God says, appearing beside me in stylish clothes. “Can I have a sip?”

“Sure,” I say. “It’s awful.”

God winks, tips the bottle back, swallows, and it’s gone. The beer is gone. The day is gone. Light is peeling off the walls, and I’m falling in.

“Help!” I yell to God as I dangle. The full weight of my body is too much.

God brings an umbrella and yellow boots, a dog, and a fresh beer. But I can’t accept any of it because I need both hands to hold onto the gravelly rim of my small reality.

“Let go,” God says.

“I can’t,” I yell back.

“Of course, you can,” God says, and kneels to loosens my fingers, one by one.

Body Snatching

Today, I painted the fingernails on the plastic hand that I bought at an estate sale last summer. Apparently. the hand fell off of a mannequin into the pocket of an older individual who took it home. Who knows why? The daughter was selling everything, and I didn’t blame her. Her inheritance was mostly junk, though I did get a nice brass lamp and some decent pillowcases along with the hand. The graceful curl of these fingers reminds me of my mother’s hands. She kept her shapely nails immaculate, and on very special occasions, she painted them red. Mine were always chipped. This bothered her.

I have other projects, too. So many meaningful activities, it’s hard to choose among them. I’ve already answered emails, done Facetime with a friend, texted God twice, and eaten half of a pumpkin pie. Soon, I’ll take care of some other dreaded items on my list. But first, I need to gather myself in my dim navigational mirror and chart my way. God’s answer to my first text was garbled and long, filled with comically misspelled words. Essentially, it said “Hang on a bit longer, little buddy. I’m gathering fallen leaves, breathing over the surface of a thousand planets, and birthing stars. I wish I could bring you with me, but you must stay put. I’ll circle back.”

“Wait,” I texted back. “WAIT.”

I’m not sure what one does with a waiting God, but I didn’t need to figure that out because God refused. “No,” God texted. “You’re the one who has to wait.”

I know the fog will burn off, only to gather again, storms will rage, subside, and rage. The eternal is comprehensible only to a broken man lying on the side of the road–and only for a moment.

I am bereft of mother and father, bereft of a God that will submit to containment and do my bidding. But while I can, I will name the hatreds so hot, so wrong, they are burning holes in the fabric of hope. When I’m at my best, I, too, wait broken on the side of the road, and as darkness gathers, I, too, look up and see the cold light of stars—ancient light that has made its way over terrain I cannot imagine. As the sure and final darkness falls, I hope I will remember to pry my fists open and paint my broken nails florescent red. And then, when God circles back, I hope I’ll wave my fancy fingers like a shameless fool; defenseless and overjoyed.

To Tell The Truth

“Hello, God,” I said. “I’m glad to see you.”

“No, you’re not,” God said. “And besides, you can’t see me. You’re pretending again.”

“Ha,” I said. “I’m not pretending; I’m extraordinarily brave. I tell it like it is, and I see you as you are.”

“No,” God said, smiling. “To tell the truth, you see me as you are. Yes, in your timid sort of way, you’re brave. I’ll give you that. But at best, on a good day, you see a fraction.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Hide all you want. Bury yourself in round river rock. Roll to the sea and come back as rain. Write one of your names in the sky and erase it before anyone notices. I’m on to you, God.”

God threw back her head and laughed a belly laugh that turned into thunder that turned into earthquakes that turned into fire that burned the forest to ash, and yet…the hatching and birthing and sprouting continued in a clamorous flurry of all that might be and all that has always been. And nothing was essential. And nothing was missing except the deadly little part I was clinging to as if it could save me.

“Don’t look,” I said to God, as I tried to pry open the rusted metal box where I hide most of myself. “Nothing of interest here.” It opened a crack and I could see my inconsequential self looking back at me, pleading.

God stopped laughing and stared at her feet. She traced the grain in the wood floor with her toe. It was clear she had something difficult to say. I started crying. “It’s too late, isn’t it?” I sobbed. “I need one more life. Just one more. I’ll get it right next time, I promise.”

God shook her head solemnly and took my cold hand into her warm ones. We went to harvest the last of the carrots, me still sniffling, thinking my sorrow might generate a bit of sympathy. God, big and earthy. We dug for a while and then God paused, shovel in hand. “Lie down in the weeds and look up,” she said.

“I don’t want to,” I said, wiping my nose. “The ground is hard. The weeds have thorns, and we don’t have time for your nonsense. Winter’s coming.”

God held my gaze and sighed a long sigh that became a steady wind that became flying leaves that became fine dust. “That’s true,” she said, as she laid herself down between the rows. “Winter is coming.”

When for No Apparent Reason You Paint a Broken Rake

There are forces in the universe–neatly stacked wood, oranging pumpkins, stalks of hollyhocks gone to seed, fresh-cut alfalfa, twisted driftwood, cattle in the distance, air newly cleaned—these ferment my brain into dangerous effervescence. I approach the brink of God, dip my toes, and come undone, possessed by the moment that is not a moment that is full and tragic, achingly beautiful, and all that will ever be.

God is the God of mortar, lichen, and worn-away stone. God is the degradation of birth, the elevation of death, the definition color, an infinite splintering of light; wave and particle, energy and mass. God is the invasion of microbes, a dash of salt, the overweight cook in the kitchen where all is reformed into loaves that bake while the fish fry, and the fact of time is debated over expensive red wine.

“Fancy,” God says, settling. “I like what you did with that rake.”

“Thanks,” I answer, proud that he’d noticed. Yesterday afternoon, with unworthy fingers and no explanation, I had painted the tines of a broken rake. “And I like what you did with the morning,” I continue. “It’s taken me completely apart.” 

“I know,” God says. “I love you like this, all shredded and spikey.”

“Sure you do,” I say, the vertigo that is God making my eyes misfire so I cannot distinguish between inside or out, hand or foot. “Sure you do.” The crystals in my inner ear are mixing the signals. I snap the last carabiner open, and the chains fall to the ground.

“Wait,” God says as I begin to dissipate. “I wanted to give you a hug.”

“Can’t,” I say. “Covid.”

“Ha!” God laughs. “Good one.” The embrace is labyrinthian; my body folds in, flows out, reconfigures, settles, and I am ready. Again. For now. For nothing.

For Paula

This morning I awoke in the land of the living but someone I loved for decades did not. Her long life ended peacefully last night, and the world is emptier this morning. God wants me to edit that last line because it isn’t quite accurate from God’s perspective, but I’m not going to. From my perspective, one of the gentlest, most generous people I’ve ever known is gone, and the world is emptier. From God’s perspective, all things transform. Time is an elastic metaphor God uses to teach us about love. I don’t like today’s lesson. Love is costly and painful for linear beings.

The last time I saw her, with some hesitation, she let me hold her hand, birdlike bones covered in bruised, paper-thin skin. She recognized the warmth of my hand. That’s all. Most of her had already melted away. During that visit, God spent his time in the kitchen making chocolate cake. She and her roommates, the vacant people in their vacant chairs, still relished a bite of warm cake with a touch of ice cream.

But there comes a time when there is nothing left to relish. The curled body tightens into a perfect circle, and it is done. Finished. A life has been accomplished. The final grades are in. The eternal vacation of liquid soul has begun. But God objects again. He claims there is no beginning. No end. Only flow. And again, I refuse to edit. And I cry. And God cries.

This is the thing I like about God. He willingly gets linear and crawls right into the pain. He sobs, surrounds, and sits with me. He reminds me how many ways there are to die, and we marvel together that I have this day. This moment. That’s all.

The Mystery fractures into light. Photosynthesis begins. The Bread of Life is chocolate cake. The Living Waters of her endless kindness flow to the sea, and there the kindness shall flow again. There we shall all flow again. She loved walking on the beach, collecting sand dollars, remembering the clam digs. I wish we’d walked there more, but I’m grateful for the times we did. I see her knobby feet in the sand, her old-lady pants rolled to the knee, her face turned to the endless horizon. “Safe travels,” I whisper as the Mystery takes her away. I’m pretty sure I saw her wave.

Influencer

“God,” I said to my coauthor, “we need to try and appeal to a younger audience. Maybe we shouldn’t focus on disease, death, plague, poverty, and pestilence so often.”

“Ya think?” God said. He’d stopped by in the guise of distinguished looking diplomat, trimmed beard, clear blue eyes, three-piece suit. Trustworthy. Then, just as he sat down, he aged into a very old man in baggy clothes, legs bent to the chair like sticks, vision clouded by cataracts. “Stop worrying that pretty little head of yours. Come give me a little peck on the cheek,” he said. “There’s smoke in the chimney, fire in the belly.” He jiggled his torso. It was repulsive. What in the heck was God up to? After a couple of lurid winks, God morphed again. She leaned over me, sweet cleavage burbling out of her scant bikini inches from my nose. She smelled of sunshine, youth, hope, and laughter—utterly delicious. “How’s this?” God asked.

“Mirror, please,” I said. God handed me a simple mirror, and I turned it on her. “Oh,” she gasped. “I forget how beautiful I am sometimes.” Then she turned it back on me. Given my 66 years, pajamas, and wayward hair, I did not have the same reaction.

“So you want a younger audience, eh?” God said. I pushed the mirror away. “Why?” she asked, not unkindly. She slipped a beach cover over her perfect shoulders.

I thought about it. Why would I want a younger audience? Why would I want an audience at all? I don’t even like people very well. “Influence,” I said hesitantly. “I think you should be a social influencer, and I’m willing to help.”

“Thanks,” God said with a wry smile, “but I can handle it. There are so many idiots, zealots, fanatics, and frightened people speaking for me, explaining me in formulas, thinking they have a bead on who I AM, I don’t really need any more help.”

I tried to be thoughtful, but God could see my feelings were hurt. She added, “Sometimes, sweetheart, diminishment amplifies the truth and lets the light in through the cracks.” Diminishment? The old Shaker song, T’is a gift to be simple got into my head, and as I hummed the tune, God grew large, black, and soft, and I relaxed into the familiar comfort of the unknowable. Her name was Diminishment. Her name was Truth.

“Why do you come by?” I asked.

“Why do I love you?” God asked back.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it’s your only viable option.”

“Nope,” God said. “It’s a choice, and it happens to be the best way to influence anyone. Ever.”

In this vast land of fear and loathing, we hunkered down and snuggled. Then God packed up the mirror and left, taking most of the available light. She left me a little. Just a little. But I think it will be enough.

Legacy

Reportedly one symptom of Covid 19 is the loss of taste, which in rare cases could be a blessing. The worst thing I’ve ever tasted was a stink bug hidden in a bowl of fresh raspberries. Stink bugs emit a foul odor when disturbed, but they taste far more foul when bitten.

I doubt God has ever bitten a stink bug. I imagine the worst thing God has ever tasted is hatred. Even a little bit of hatred can ruin the whole savory stew of a creation born of love. I spat that stink bug out, brushed my teeth, and gargled, but the taste lingered. I shudder to think what we’re doing to God right now. But maybe it’s God’s own fault. The stink bug was entirely accidental. We’re not. There’s nothing accidental about us.

Some of you may wonder about the motivation, sanity, and content of this blog…as have I. Right now, you are reading my 200th post. Just over five years ago, I had a chance encounter with cancer. Facing imminent mortality yanked my consciousness around. Disbelief and indignation got all tangled up with gratitude, terror, and determination. My connections to the Great Beyond, the God of Bigness, Littleness, Cosmos, Critters, Creative Urgency, and Salvation expanded like stretchy strands of spider web, tenacious as dry rot eating through brick; God, the ever-branching tentacles; me, the crumbling brick.

I’ve gotten to know my bothersome Co-Author fairly well because I live by a river, and it’s quiet sometimes–quiet enough to hear the continual cracking of God’s fractured heart and green enough to witness the courageous mending wrought by the small yellow flowers as they befriend their fate.

Every day, I try to follow suit and befriend my fate. Bark peels off the fallen tree into my hands, and even this has become more beautiful than I can bear. I lay the best pieces on the water and send them downstream to people I do not know and cannot name; gay, black, beaten, homeless…the hungry and the dead.

No one comes back to tell us anything about legacies or regrets, but I am convinced everything matters a little. Like attending. Showing up. But to really show up, to take it all in, I have to pry myself open to touch and see, listen…and yes, to smell and taste. Even after the stink bug incident, some days I bravely sniff the breeze and roll the taste of God around in my mouth. No matter how fresh or putrid, bitter or sweet, I try to savor. Some days, God bravely does the same with me.

I wish each ferocious moment of connection would be enough, but that’s not how it works. Thus, I ponder and write. Thank you for reading these blogs and for prying yourselves as open as you dare. Openings create legacies, fleeting and fine-boned, as all legacies should be. For that, I am grateful.

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.