The Dance

Sometimes, I don’t get along with the co-author of this blog all that well. We argue, give each other the silent treatment, and land low blows, but then we usually find our way to uncomfortable compromises. It isn’t exactly quiet desperation, but close. We’re like the gruesome twosome in the couples counseling literature—together for the long haul, though there are days it isn’t pretty. Arguing with God is a thankless task and there is scant evidence it does much good, but what are the alternatives? Eat curses and enemies for breakfast with loaded guns across our laps? Slide blithely toward extinction? Give shallow thanks for our short-sighted blessings, imagined or real? Die alienated, resentful, or afraid? No.

For instance, this morning I say, “Hear my prayers, oh mighty and all-knowing God.” (I only start this way when I’m in a certain mood.) “I implore you to move most of earth’s population to other planets. Provide everyone with birth control, shelter, and nutritious food. Let the artists do art. Let the lovers love. Let the earth recover its incredible balance. Disable all weaponry. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Amen.”

My co-author responds. “Hear my suggestions, oh puny human,” she says. “Feed the hungry. Provide shelter and comfort to one another. Limit your offspring. Visit those who are ill or imprisoned. Give cheerfully and pay your taxes willingly. Elect rulers with integrity and compassion. Stop relying on that which is nonrenewable. Stop using poisons and short-cuts. Stop using weapons. Stop acting like you own the place. You’re just passing through. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Selah.”

Our longings are similar, but we disagree about who’s responsible. Many of us can’t even carry a tune. Who should take the lead?  

“Not me,” God says. “I’ve already given you all you need.”

“I don’t think so,” I say.

“Of course you’d say that,” God says, in a firm mother’s voice. “You’ve made a royal mess. Clean your room.”

“I would,” I claim, shamefaced. “But I don’t know which one’s mine.”

“Doesn’t matter,” God says. She hands me a dust cloth, a mop, a broom, knee pads, a toolkit, water bottles…

“Stop!” I say, “I already have all that stuff.”

God grabs a can of oven cleaner. “Then let’s get going,” she says. “I need time to practice. I’m combining tap with some exquisite break-dance moves for my next performance.”

This is a great motivator. I love watching God dance, her muscular body supple and yielding, her hair snapping like lightning. Sometimes, she invites the universe to be her partner, and spectacular forces shape themselves to her. Sometimes, she dances solo. Either way, it is magnificent. I gather rags and rubber gloves, and away we go. I’m not sure what, but something will be shiny clean by noon.

Rake Handles

Painting our shovel handles industrial yellow worked out well, but dark green for the rake handles was a mistake. I used to hate being wrong, but I’m more patient with myself now. I have red paint. I can fix it. Then, we’ll be able to see those handles hiding in the grass and be far less likely to step on the tines or lose the rake for months on end.

“Of course, there’s always the option of putting the rakes away after you use them,” God says with a laugh. I sneer. God continues. “And on the subject of mistakes, I’m getting more patient with myself, too. Perfection is a shifting concept—a process. Without mistakes, there are far fewer ways to learn.”

“Oh, I get that,” I say. But inside I’m thinking yeah, and what about people who won’t admit their mistakes? The people who believe they know more than the experts? The people who willfully destroy the earth? The people who put others at risk by not taking basic protective measures?

“You win some, you lose some,” God says. “You can quote me on that.”

I smile dubiously. I doubt I’ll be quoting God on that or anything. I am sick to death of supposed God quotes thrust at me through social media by people I know to be incredible hypocrites. And yes, we all have our hypocritical moments. That’s the thing about perfection. It brings out the worst in people.

“Sure is smoky,” I say.

God nods, rubbing her eyes. “Yeah, and hot as hell,” she adds.

I raise my eyebrows. God gives me a sly look and nods again. “Like I said, without mistakes, there are far fewer ways to learn. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

“God,” I say. “You scare me when you talk like that.”

“I know,” God says. “But I can’t help it. Fear is one of your bigger mistakes. Hatred is another. Paint those red and put them away when you’re not using them for the good.”

She sounds stern, but she opens her arms for a quick embrace. “The seasons don’t arrive at exactly the same time every year, honey. But they always arrive. You can’t stop them, and you shouldn’t try.”

“Can I quote you on that?” I ask, facetiously.

“No need,” God says. “Everyone who’s anyone already knows. And the rest won’t listen anyway.”

“That’s what it seems like,” I admit. “But you aren’t giving up on them, are you?”

“Never,” God says. “But I’m glad you asked.” The quick embrace is now a bear hug and God kisses the top of my head and for the briefest of moments, everything is holy. And perfect.

Rock Saw

I have a functional rock saw. It’s dusty, rusty, and ugly, but it has one fancy feature: the blade–which has diamond chips on the edge. It can slice a rock in two but if I accidentally touch it, it won’t even scratch my skin. I know this in my head, but my neck muscles tighten to the point of popping when I flip the switch and begin guiding the chosen rock through the process of coming apart.

It is with reverence and holy anticipation that I open and explore the inner workings of stone. Some have nothing hidden and remain a steady brown or gray, but others have intricate interiors—patterns of color and luminosity, suggestions of scenery, stories of minerals and the workings of water. When the slabs first separate and emerge from the murky waters, they shine like newborns. The one has become two. A beautiful but sudden breakage has taken place—much different than the geologic forces that diminish stones slowly into smoother, more humble surfaces.

As it turns out, God doesn’t like my rock saw all that well. The Three-in-One stand alongside, frowning. They don’t approve of the primitive deconstruction of density and coherence. They don’t fully understand my all-too-human sequence of raw apprehension followed by awe. Maybe I don’t either. But as always, they are patient and kind.

“Having an audience doesn’t help,” I told them last evening, as I worked on a particularly hard specimen. Something deep inside that amalgamation of jasper and flint was so dense it repeatedly grabbed the blade and stalled out. I kept trying, but the motor reached the shut-down temperature, so there we sat, waiting for things to cool.

“Want something to drink?” I asked, hoping they’d say no and go somewhere they’d be more appreciated. They glanced among themselves, mentally conferring about the status of their hydration and the needs of the universe.

“Don’t let me keep you,” I added. “This could take a while.”

Again, they conferred. And laughed. A flock of sparrows landed on their outstretched arms which had blackened to coal. Then diamond. Then jasper, blood red and mustard yellow. The sparrows lifted the inextricable threesome, dropped them in the river and updrafted into numinous air I could only hope to breathe someday. A very high place. Heaven, if you will.

As time came back into focus, the motor had cooled enough to let me start again, working slowly through the recalcitrant hunk of greatly compressed life. “It has to be beautiful in there if it is this hard to cut,” I thought to myself. I often think things that turn out to be mostly wrong . This is an insight that often brings a surprising amount of peace.

Auto-Correct

My Co-author had to disrupt the internet to get my attention and even now, crashed and subdued, I’m trying to find ways to curl up around some happy little thought and protect myself from the simplicities and complexities of that damn self-reflective loop that causes me such trouble. It’s worse than my morning cough. Worse than my lists of things to do. Is this banquet of options meant to prove something? Should I learn to weld?

My Co-author offers no edits. The exuberant birds keep singing, even though I’m sure they’ve already mated for the season. We have water. Enough water for baths and baptisms, for chard, onions, and corn. But the way forward, the way back–always under construction. This is hard for most lifeforms and algorithms to grasp. I am among them.

With a cool breeze and sustenance, it’s easier to make space for my longings and give them a name. I will call them Holy. With a severely curtailed agenda, it is easier to befriend all those familiar demons and fears. I will call them Holy as well. I recognize my hands and consider the things they will do today. If I stare long enough, the delicate bones of God disintegrate, and to be consistent, I know I should call the disintegration Holy and make this morning into a trinity. Land, sea, and sky. Mind, body, and soul. Life, death, and passage.

God slides into distant view as an inane prompt, wondering if I want to save this document. It’s not been saved in the allotted time, nor have I, nor have the people washing up on various shores, seeking to make a better life.

“I don’t like your magnitude this morning,” I tell my Co-author.

“I know,” she says. “And I don’t blame you one bit.”

“Oh, but you do,” I say. “I feel the sun on my damaged skin. I taste the salt. The joy in the river is at an all-time low.”

“And yet, here we are,” my Co-author says, complacent.

“Would you mind editing?” I ask.

“No need,” my Co-author says. “Everything stolen shall be returned. Everything broken shall be repaired. All words misspoken shall be transformed.”

“Sounds as reliable as auto-correct.” I say in a snarky voice. “So, thanks for nothing.”

“You’re welcome,” my Co-author says, and she means it. Nothing is one of her favorite gifts.

A misguided bird has flown through the open door into our porch. I move to help it rejoin the wilder world, glad to have something obvious to do, but before I get there, it has realized its mistake and flown away.

Jerusalem

There is joy in an empty morning, especially if it is tinted slightly turquoise or gentile orange. Wait. I meant genteel. Not gentile. Where did that come from? Oh well. Too late. My mind has gone down the rabbit hole of the middle east and the histories of whole cultures and artificial delineations that have led to pathetic claims of superiority and audacious acts of murder or full-on genocide. Out of suffering has come suffering.

Oh, Jerusalem. You were meant to point us to wholeness but instead, you are irreparably cracked. You have a planet-full of earthborn children pretending to cry out for peace, but peace is boring. What we want is unfettered growth, unmitigated accumulation, endless storage space, and the assurance of a self-styled salvation. Gentile, Jew, Palestinian, Greek, African, White, Latino, Asian, Native, Alien, Influxers, Outgoers, Believers, and those bloated with greed. We’re all a blur in the eye of the passing God who named us Jerusalem and flew away. Named us Eve, Fig Leaf, and Pig’s Eye.

“Are there clues in our DNA?” I ask God as he makes another pass, and I continue to free associate, stimulated by the random events of typos and auto-correct.

“For what?” God says, slowing to a flickering presence, picking at a hangnail, disdainful and uninterested in being embodied.

“For how we’ve gone so wrong,” I say.

“Who’s to say you’ve gone wrong?” God says. “Maybe I planned it this way. And what do you mean by ‘wrong’ and am I included in your sweeping judgements?”

I lean in close to this flippant caricature with onion breath, ragged nails, and bruised feet. God leans away. I lean closer. God gets up and puts himself in the corner, a place of shameful contemplation. I wiggle past the hulking body and become as angular as any corner has ever been.

“Face me,” I demand. Then add in a pleading voice, “I have something you might like.”

God’s hair is greasy. His teeth are mostly gone. His longings are choking the life out of him. He can’t have what he most wants. He’s so lonely he’s willing to settle for fleeting liaisons, lies, and invitations to banquets where only poison is served. Why would anyone host a banquet and then serve poison?

In my angularity, I’ve chosen to serve ramen. It takes the shape of its container, but the long strands remain true to themselves unless they’re cooked too long, and that’s what matters. I try to make sure nothing tastes like soap, whitewash, or condemnation, but there’s a slight aftertaste anyway. I don’t blame myself. If I’ve learned anything from God, it is this: nothing in life will be completely free of aftertaste.

Trees Walking

“God,” I said, after a hot, dry afternoon of good and bad happenings. “How are you different than coincidences or things we can’t explain?”

“I’m not,” God said. “In other dimensions, they don’t even call me God.”

I’ve always known that had to be the case, but knowing hasn’t reduced my longing for a provable formula, a reliably vengeful God, a certain ally, or an intelligent designer with some degree of accountability.

I sighed and asked politely, “What do they call you, then?”

God smiled. “Ah, let’s see. If I put the terms in English for you, I’m sometimes called Attribution, Allah, Beelzebub and Baby’s Breath, Creator, Calamity, Dalliance, Dendroid, Emmanuel, Ego…” She paused and smiled. “Shall I go on?”

“Well, the ABCs are a little boring,” I said. “How about a different alphabet? Or the language of a neighboring planetary system?”

This was perhaps an unwise request from an older soul like myself. God grabbed the brittle corners of my imagination and shook the filmy cataracts loose. My eyes beheld a night sky so dense with possibilities that it almost instantly blinded me. The names of God were a thousand suns, unleashed. God waved her baton; the symphony of all her names was deafening. I intended for my tongue to move, but it would not. With great effort, I raised my finger to signal for help.

“Enough?” God asked.

“Too much,” I said, as I tried to gather what was left of my sensibilities.

“Hand them over,” God said.

“No,” I said. “They’re mine.”

God shook her mane, waved her appendages, leathered up, and roared around in circles on a ruby red Harley. Followers stampeded behind, raising clouds of luminescence. A cacophony of unearthly mirth blew through the trees and with help from a gifted artist, they were transformed into maniacal silver laughter. I couldn’t hold on.

“Uncle,” I shouted.

“Good one,” God shouted back.

“No, I mean I give up,” I said.

“I know what Uncle means,” God said as she put me back together, muttering to herself in languages from beyond and beneath. “There.” She patted my head which felt slightly askew. “That’ll do for now.” She started to walk away but then gave me a second glance. “You’re getting a little tired of the circularity, aren’t you, honey?”

“No!” I lied. “No, not at all.” With the few shreds of pride still at my disposal, I stood erect. “You have a nice day, God” I said. Then I turned my back, rolled under the nearest pile of dead branches, and held very still. As my eyes adjusted, I could see that I was not alone. So many sentient beings, so many innocent souls hiding from the birds of prey.

Maybe God was right. Maybe I am a little tired. This will be an excellent place to rest.

NYT2009
(One of Roxy Paine’s amazing creations)

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.