Up to you

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“Up to you,” God said. This is a lonely answer.

My hot bath had steamed the bathroom mirrors. I was brushing my teeth, contemplating all the irritating, confusing choices humans face. Which main dish to order, which shirt to buy, which route to take, which career to pursue, which allegiances to pledge, which weapons to use, which sacrifices to make, which people to love–how much to eat, when to arrive, when to leave, when to support, when to withhold, when to sing and when to scream–the choice of what to believe, who to trust. Even not choosing is choosing. There’s no way out.

“I know you have opinions,” I said. “Why can’t you be more open about them? Why can’t you be more helpful?”

God snorted.

“I take that to mean I’m supposed to know already,” I said. Like a tired professor, God wrote the words justice, mercy, and humility in the steam on the mirror. “Oh, sure,” I said. “Thanks, Mr. Subtle. I think you left out truth and compassion. Maybe I need a bigger mirror.”

I thought I was being funny. God didn’t laugh.

“You know,” I continued. “Lots of choices are made with no regard for you, one way or the other. You’re a pawn—a lousy excuse or nothing. You’ve tragically over-estimated our capacities. And now? What are you doing? We’re in so much trouble.”

God crossed his arms. Uncrossed his arms. Looked at me. His gaze was steady. I could see through his planetary eyes to the end of creation and back, the path swirling and surging with deceptively simple equations. He was everything. He was nothing. He was of a purity I could not comprehend. He opened his hands, and a thousand knives clattered to the floor. He was bleeding profusely.

“God!” I gasped. It looked like he might lose consciousness. I tried to cushion his fall. I shook him and said, “God. Hang on. Hang on, buddy. Do you hear me? Stay with me, God. Stay with me.”

I shouted for help. There was no one to call 911. There are no ambulances equipped to deal with a hemorrhaging universe and a broken-hearted God. The child at the border, dead. The old woman starving in Syria. The tender earth split open and gutted. God’s creatures eating plastic, God’s body bleeding out. God’s face in my hands.

“This is too hard,” I sobbed, filled with fear and self-pity. “You know it’s too hard.” I started to lay down beside him on the cold tile floor, to give up, to wait for the end in the waning warmth of a dying God. But he was gone.

I opened my inner eyes, still afraid, but the tiniest bit hopeful. Far, far away, I could see him walking with great deliberation in the garden. Small birds were closing his wounds, and color was returning to his cheeks. I knew I was invited. And I knew it was up to me.

 

Rope Burn

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Sunrise. To my back, a river. On my left, fire. In front of me, wind bends everything eastward. The earth patiently awaits my arrival. Baby God of the delicate pink is creating a pastel peacefulness I wish I could believe in. But I don’t. I’m afraid of being placated by a tissue-thin God with bad breath—an insipid God badly explained by self-absorbed minions whose first language is greed.

All corporeal beings are caught in the slipstream of creation–salvation of a brutal sort. Translucent realities streak by–sleek greyhounds racing each other for the fun of it. All bets are off, decks stacked, roulette wheels off-kilter. The stakes are so high it takes a very big God to cover them. Very big. The Jubelale isn’t as tasty as last year, and my Christmas pajamas aren’t as warm. I need to pack the car so we can drive off into what appears to be a forward direction.

“It isn’t really forward, is it?” I whisper to God as I open the tailgate. God knows I do not want an answer, and I get none.

“Nothing is all that complicated, is it?” I whisper again, loading the suitcases, still not wanting an answer and still not getting one.

“You’re along for the ride, aren’t you?” My third query. This time, I’m not sure if I want an answer. I can feel God itching to say something so I pause.

“No,” God says in a stern voice neither audible nor pastel. “No, I’m not.” The voice reverberates. Eternal. Ethereal.

My heart breaks. An ugly little part of me shrieks with maniacal laughter, “Told you so, told you so, told you so.”  It does a victory dance, slams the ball in the end zone, beats its chest.

The hands of God applaud. Ugly self does a double-take and hesitates. The prancing is over; a temporary death is near, but God is very gentle.

“Come here,” God says to my ugly self. Ugly self slinks closer. “I know you’re afraid. It’s hard to be insignificant and mortal, but you have to try. Belligerence won’t help. I’ve done what I can, but The Ride cannot be along for the ride.” God turns to the larger me. “I don’t know if this helps, but I’ve been there. I am there. You’ll find your way.”

You’ll find your way—a string of words that slip by like a lariat tied to the saddle horn of a spooked horse. I have no gloves. I debate with myself for a moment, then grab on. The alternatives are far worse than rope burn. Maybe God and I can gentle this horse down. Or maybe I’ll just hold on for dear life–linear, majestic, bruising life. I’ll hold on even though the rope digs channels in my flesh, and at some point I will have to let go.

Baby God is still playing in the sky, now decisively blue. “Merry Christmas,” I shout to the horse, to God, and to my ugly self. I am defiantly exuberant. “Bring it on,” I add. And I mean it.

Sweet Darkness

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For the past two nights, I’ve woken in the unknowable blackness of far past midnight and wrestled with the biochemical truths of the human propensity for bleakness. Who knows why these useless awakenings occur? True, I might be a little more stressed than usual. For the holidays, I’d planned on spending more time hanging around in the spiritual ozone, letting God know my soul was open for business, but instead, I bought a condo. An old one. December is an excellent time to do real estate and pull up disgusting carpet, especially in the higher elevations of the northern hemisphere, where ice and snow add to the romance of trips across town.

“Smart ass,” God says, at my elbow. “Trying to write fancy is no substitute for confession or compassion. And it is certainly no excuse for jilting me.”

“You’re nuts,” I say back, kind of glad God has shown up, if only for an argument. “This isn’t fancy writing, I’m not avoiding confession or compassion, and you are impossible to jilt anyway.”

God waits, patient and large. I wait, less patient, asserting my own puny largeness as best I can. We sit; me, trying to recover from a bad night’s sleep; God, well, who knows what she’s up to? She wraps herself in shadow and begins growing darker and darker. For a while, I watch the disappearing act, detached and calm, even though I realize a black hole is opening up in my living room—the gravitational pull is bending the light into itself and I am dissipating into my imperfections. The only source of light comes from faces around me, lit up with hatred. They glow from the heat of fear, greed, and a steely will to survive at all costs.

“Hold them,” God says, as she offers me a set of icy black hands. “Be gentle,” she adds. I cradle the first vicious face in my beautiful hands, wishing someone could see how incredibly compassionate I was being. The face spits at me. Embers of spit melt holes in whatever it is I am. I hold on, but eventually, my substance goes up in flames. I gag from the smell of singed flesh and the oily residue of false pride.

“That worked out well,” I gasp, as God reconstitutes my being.

“As well as can be expected,” God says. “Would you like to rest?”

I nod and surrender–weak, grateful, and fully known. God shakes the sky free of stars and I crawl down into the sweet, healing darkness where the fires of fear have all gone out, the glare of hatred has no reflecting surface, and fetid wounds inflicted by too much artificial light will be disinfected and stitched shut. This is the place warriors become lovers, where the cool, black hands of God hold the flushed face of the universe until everything dies peacefully into itself.

In my dream, I am young again. Peter, Paul, and Mary are singing. And I want to believe them. We all want to believe them.

 

When I was a child

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When I was a child, I wandered the hills seeking treasure, searching for diamonds– settling for flint or jasper. I also saved sick and abandoned animals or stood watch as life ebbed away and their eyes dulled into death. The funerals were elaborate, with grass-lined cardboard coffins and all sorts of prayers offered up. Magpies, sparrows, kittens, and lambs. I knew God then as a kindly grandfather who, like me, stood watch from the clouds that rested on the shoulders of the nearby foothills. His hills. His feet. His world.

But now, God and I have a more complicated relationship. The magnitude of the cosmos has impressed itself on me, and the minuscule mass of quivering molecules cloaked in my skin are slowing down. People are dying in fires and floods. Children are mangled and hungry. When they wander, they’re not looking for pretty rocks. They’re looking for food.

I raise my fist in God’s face, as if there is a God, as if there is a way. And God flinches. She is traumatized, bleeding, bruised…and regal. She is hungry, angry, scorched, and stubbornly vital. “You can’t scare me,” she says, after regaining her composure. “You can’t scare me.”

But in my heart, I know I can. And I’m sorry. I am so, so, sorry. God, I am so sorry. Universe, I am so sorry.

God puts her knife down. I throw my arms around her. The pettiness of my worries shames me. I promise to do better. To make donations. To live simply. To march. To express my indignation. I will reduce the number of hours I spend hating. Hating. Hating. But I can’t actually do this. I am weak. I have to ask for help.

“Um, God,” I begin. “I have a compost bucket for a heart.”

“I know,” she says. “Compost is good. It breaks down. Rest. Stay warm. Try to love people a little better.”

“I already do that,” I say, disappointed. I was looking for diamonds, not the common stuff of existence.

“Flint and jasper, petrified wood. Quartz, granite, even coal,” God says, and then adds, in a knowing voice, “Sandstone.”

And miraculously, I see it. Sandstone. With lichen growing, just the right colors of orange and green. Yellow and gold. So fragile. So irregular in its jagged perfection. So contrite. Diamonds are cold and hard, slicing deep wounds in the open hand of God. Sandstone yields and crumbles. I am sandstone, soon to become a granular part of this sweet and tiny earth. With help from my broken friend, I can choose the lower places. It makes me a little nervous, but if God can flinch and recover, so can I.

Facial Hair

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God struggles with facial hair just like the rest of us. What does it mean if you don’t pluck your chin hairs? What about those Duck Dynasty-esq beards? What’s the message? And what about a little planet that fails to groom itself? Yes, it appears that earth groomed itself just fine before humans started asserting their appetites, but like it or not, we’ve clumsily joined the ecosystem and the globe now has a steady diet of bad hair days.

One thing I know about the face of God is that the bone structure is birdlike and fragile. It responds to the slightest breeze. And the eyes of God are often fringed with thick, curly lashes. When God blinks, entire galaxies lift and fly through the dark nothingness. On the face of God, unwanted, unmanaged facial hair presents a kind of danger the rest of us can only imagine. It disguises and insulates. It allows us to pretend we don’t know the truth.

This morning, an unshaven God has squeezed himself into one of our sage-colored easy chairs and is rubbing his bristly face, watching me type. “How about you clean this place up a little today?” God asks.

My fingers slow on the keyboard. “What’s the point?” I snap. I meant to sound belligerent, so the grief that wells up surprises me. I look down at my Ninja Turtle pajama bottoms. They’re too big, but I like them. I may wear them all day. My eyes roam around the room because I don’t want to look at God. A day has arrived and it will be spent and gone no matter what I do. The mundane and the horrific. Kindness and cruelty. Hunger and gluttony. Where to begin? Where to end?

Dust dances in the muscular sun streaming in my passive solar windows. God’s voice has the gravelly sound of a man holding back tears. “I know. I often feel the same way. I think it was a good idea to invent time, but sometimes, I’m not so sure. ”

In the distance, the wind is snapping the fabric of an American flag I attached to a fencepost near the highway. I took my signs down yesterday, but the flag stays. The redundancies of human existence often fool me into forgetting linearity. But linearity robs me of the moment. Another weary dialectic to grapple with. I glance at God’s face. His beard seems to have grown a half-inch since I last looked. His eyes are burning orbs, seething with something beyond hope. His fingers drum impatiently on his legs.

“I think I’ll go shave,” he says.

“Okay,” I say. “I guess I’ll get dressed.”

 

The Way of All Flesh

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“Um, God,” I said, “I’ve been meaning to tell you…”

I saw no way to ease into this topic, so I gulped and blurted. “I intend to end my life if I think it’s time.” My bravado belied my queasy stomach, but I don’t know why I bother to put on airs like that. God sees right through me.

“I know,” she said, almost tenderly. “And that’s an adaptive way to deal with your fear and sadness. A mental escape hatch.”

“So you don’t mind?” I asked. “You don’t care if people kill themselves?”

“Depends,” God said. “I care enormously about your suffering. I suffer with you.”

“I’m not suffering right now,” I said, ever the defensive, egocentric one.

“Then why are we having this conversation?” God asked.

My words tumbled out. “Because of the enormous pressure people feel to stay alive. To defend life at all costs. To survive. To frame death as the final defeat. They pin it on your will. Like when people finally die, it’s ‘God’s will’, or when they live, it’s ‘God’s will’. But then, somehow, it’s our job to keep inventing ways to prolong our lives, and no matter what, we eventually die, and sometimes, slowly, painfully, and without any brain left.”

God gazed out the window. “Scary,” she finally said, mostly to herself. “Expecting conscious mortals to make compassionate decisions…sometimes I wonder if I’m asking too much.”

“Compassionate decisions?” I echoed, thinking, “Could she possibly mean that choosing death, ending a life, could be a compassionate decision?”

The Eternal Allness, the Beginning and the End, the Ever-present Force, the Planner, Sustainer, Granter, Architect, Experimenter, Lover, Truster, Sufferer, Giver, Taker, Saver, Waster—my side-kick and nemesis—smiled like a patient third grade teacher.

“Sobering, isn’t it?” she said. “But yes. You already consciously end millions of lives without compassion, out of greed, neglect, or fear. You execute. And you honor those who give their lives for others. You end the suffering of your beloved pets. You can’t excuse yourself from these contradictions, nor can you legislate them away. Here it is: Sometimes, in the larger scheme of things, choosing to end a life, even your own, is choosing Life.”

“Stop!” I said. I’d lost my bearings, overwhelmed with the wrenching images and conflicts. The dialectics of existence. Ending suffering. Murdering thousands. Politics and greed that result in starvation. The human capacity to grow food; invent medications; toy with life; dole out death. The human longing for perpetual youth. Slippery slopes and higher visions.

“No worries,” God said. “I’ll stop. But I’m not going anywhere.” She grew galaxy-big and atomic-small. She swam in a sea of amniotic fluid, danced a bone-rattling dance, died in the arms of a weeping father, and pulled the sky apart so I could see through myself. She wrapped the individually-beating cells of my heart around her little finger and licked the rings of Saturn like they were strands of taffy. She was being light and heavy, silly and serious. She was kaleidoscopically steady as she pulled the arms of morning around me. Not my morning—her morning.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she repeated, stroking my forehead. “And in a way you cannot possibly understand right now, neither are you.”

Too Old For Anything but the Truth

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I am now officially too old to pledge allegiance to anything but the truth, so every morning I get up hoping to encounter something true. If God is awake, this usually causes him to clear his throat while the sun removes the frost from the windows. Perfect frost. Perfect sun.

I try not to look directly at God because I’m afraid he’ll spoil the moment. If I hold perfectly still, perfect moments roll around in the room, clear blue marbles, resembling the way the earth looks from the heavens. They balance on the surface of reality like uncried tears. In a terrible, frail, temporary way, all things are good, and perfect. In their beingness, all things are true. This is something God agreed with at least once, so I’m wondering…

“Yes,” God says. “I still agree.”

I pour God a cup of coffee, not noticing the dead fly in the bottom of the cup. God adds cream and sees the body floating on the surface. There’s been a serious invasion of spiders and houseflies as the weather turns. Most of them come in and die. Ordinarily, I avoid vacuuming, but they’re piling up, so I’ll have to clean again. None of this feels perfect. The day takes on a familiar tedium.

God skims the fly off the top of his coffee and takes a sip.

“Gross!” I say. “I can get you another cup.”

“I know,” God says. “But don’t bother. What’s a dead fly here and there?”

I admire this crude nonchalance. In the Arctic, it’s impossible to drink a bowl of warm soup before a layer of mosquitoes dive-bomb and die on the surface. You sip dead mosquitoes gladly. A far worse threat looms on the frozen horizon.

God is watching me as he sips the steaming coffee, bushy eyebrows tipped inward in a kindly look. The frost has melted. Intense October light takes over, casting sharp shadows, promising magic.

The smell of dark honey on my leftover toast breaks my heart. I know have no choice. No real choice but to accept the ethereal truths that plague and frighten me. That exhaust and break me down. All I have is a blurry vision of this clear blue moment on this clear blue planet, and though I’d rather achieve a more known perfection, I have to vacuum flies and change the sheets. I’m expecting important guests.