Perfection

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snowbound

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Two feet of God fell through the night, pure white, yielding and silent–a worthy opponent, this friend of mine. “To what do I owe this honor?” I asked as I shoveled, and tried to mean it. “Nice of you to stop by,” I added, lying. No answer. I went back inside to stoke the fire and stare out the window.

A resolute sun broke through, brief and blinding. I could see nothing. Hear nothing. The tips of my toes and fingers felt nothing. This was the white of beguiling lies, seductive cover-ups. I was out of my depth, but it kept coming down. I’m ill-prepared, I thought. When you consider wind chill, even the burliest humans are easily frozen. The teeth of my cyberworld chattered. How do you love in this bitter cold? we asked each other, not actually wanting to know.

From the security of my couch, I contemplated the fields of deep, deadly white. For my people, black is the color of mourning–the color of absorption. But billions of people mourn in white–the color of reflection. White is what happens when light gathers force: blood red, sky blue, the yellow of fire and sun.

“That’s enough of that,” God said in a gruff, grandfatherly voice. “You’re trying too hard–too full of yourself. How about the red of that little wagon? The yellow of dog pee on snow?”

“But the situation is serious, God,” I said, embarrassed. “And I didn’t know you were listening. Could you knock, or at least make some noise before you barge into my head like that?”

God rolled himself into a single eyeball, a sheen of ice glazed over a deep, dangerous blue. He winked.

“Sorry,” he said. “I know it’s childish, but I love startling people. You thought I was out there, being weather, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “Or maybe not. You tell me, Mr. Know-It-All.”

An avalanche of laughter crashed against my dying world, my endangered species, bathing it in cold comfort, icing away the inflammation of ego and all things unsettled, unfiltered, and unattainable.

“Love can look like this,” God said, pointing at a single ember.

I knew the fire needed more wood, but I was reluctant. Winter isn’t over and the woodpile is precariously low.

Known

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“It won’t always be like this,” God said, perched high in the cottonwoods near the river. And sure enough, even as I watched, God lifted into the sky and disappeared. The wind spread a translucent blanket of snow across the field, and bitter cold blew into my bones while I fantasized flying after him. I sent what I could spare aloft and turned toward home, diminished.

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“It’s better to grow smaller,” God said, meeting me at the door with dark beer and bread fresh from the oven. I drank and ate and crawled into God’s warm chest, which is always cracked wide open.

“Why do you expose your heart like this?” I asked in a critical voice, even while I let the pulsing blood restore me. I could smell my own hypocrisy, taste my own selfishness. But I stayed anyway.

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“You’re tenacious,” God said. “I’ll give you that. But you’re not as tough as you think.”

“Yes I am,” I said. I heard the sound of cloth torn, stitches ripped, fire snapping and hungry. I heard waves crashing, thunder roaring, the shriek of fallen prey, the whimper of starvation. Stones rolled, ice cracked, rifles fired, and the earth groaned with the weight of voracious appetites and malignant neglect.

“Paint me a picture,” God said. “With lots of lavender and green.”

“All I have is this awful gray,” I said, apologetically. “And maybe a little brown.”

“Don’t lie to me,” God said.

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A broken sun climbed into limited sky. The foolish snow refused to do anything but reflect light–as if it could stay cold and drifted forever. “You have to melt sometime,” I said to the snow with an evil sneer.

“And so do you,” God said, rubbing my stiffened neck. Reluctantly, I nodded and went to the basement where I keep my secret supplies of recycled canvas and secondhand paint.

“Perfect,” God said, as I emerged, laden with a rainbow of options. I shrugged, trying to hide the awful relief, the fearsome comfort, of being known.

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Bone Marrow

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“You’ve locked up an astounding number of people,” God said, settling into the sage green recliner. “Expensive choice,” she added. She pushed back to elevate her feet. The news coverage of poorly fed immigrants imprisoned in New Jersey seemed to have stimulated this comment. I nodded politely, but this is not my favorite topic.

“And a few of them are on hunger strike,” God said, shaking her head.

“Do you disapprove?” I asked, confused about where this was going.

“Oh no,” God said. “I’m right there with humans risking their lives for justice.”

“But starving yourself is a form of slow suicide,” I said. Some people think you don’t approve of that. Ever. At all.”

“Ironic” God said. “You have the death penalty and you force tubes down the noses of those willing to die for a cause.” I flashed back to a documentary of prison guards inserting those tubes. It had made me cry. God interrupted my unsettled ruminations. “You remember that Mary Oliver line ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’”

“Of course,” I said. “But she was not writing about hunger strikes.” I looked straight at God. God rolled her eyes, stood, and began pacing.

“I forget how rule-bound and simplistic you humans can be. It’s rare for you to transcend—to realize that you’re only temporarily clad in that one wild and precious life. There are times to let go.”

I looked out the window, wishing for silence, but God didn’t let up. “Thousands of years ago, when the Poet wrote ‘…a time to kill and a time to heal…’ she didn’t mean these actions were preordained. There are times to be born and times to die. Times to reap and times to sow, times to throw stones and times to gather stones together. Each of you has to figure out when.”

I thought of Palestinian youth, throwing stones. Dying. I thought of scorched swaths of earth–reaping and sowing obliterated by climate change, chemicals. The enormity of moral agency chilled my inner being. I wanted a default setting to fall back on.

God read my mind. “No part of you is ever alone,” she said, standing near the fire, rubbing her hands. She reached in her pocket and handed me a shiny business card. It read:

God. Author of Forgiveness.
Source of Wisdom. Definition of Love.
Free Consultations

I felt sick. “No,” I said and threw the card in the fire. “Too subjective. Too permissive. Too precarious. I’d rather have our legislatures just make some laws.”

God laughed. “No you wouldn’t,” she said. She pulled the card back out of the fire. The flames had done no damage. “Your best decisions are based on love. Your worst are made in anger, driven by fear, greed, revenge, or hatred. It is your body–your one wild and precious life. The laws you need are written in the marrow of your bones. Sorry, but that’s just the way I made you.”

“Bones disintegrate,” I said, still hoping for an easy way out.

“I know,” God said. “But the dust you become is light and beautiful, and the Wind is gentler than you can imagine right now.”

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.