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.

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.