The God of Paunchy-Bellied Men

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“Hey,” God said, all cheerful and awake, sitting cross-legged in the living room. “I’ve been writing some poetry. Want to hear it?” It was way too early.

“Uh, sure,” I said, groping my way toward coffee. I suspected I’d need my half-beer too. I brought it along and sat down, as polite and attentive as I could be. God seemed a little shy. “It’s entitled Lavender,” he said. He took a breath and read:

I am the God of paunchy-bellied men

with emaciated butts

and their magnificent  

big-thighed women.

 I have gradually loosened my grip

on anything

that isn’t lavender.

God paused and looked at me. “Oh, boy,” I thought. “What do I say to that?” I waited, hoping there was more, but God sat silent, trying to hide his neediness. “Interesting,” I finally said. “Tell me about lavender.”

God crossed his arms. “It’s a poetic ploy.” He shrugged. “I like the sound of lavender…and that part about me losing my grip. Dramatic, right? Me losing my grip?”

“Hmmm. The sound of lavender,” I echoed, worried about where this could go.

“Lavender” God said in a frantic voice. “Budding lilac lavender, warm blanket lavender, baby lavender, calming lavender. Or what about acid lavender, neon lavender, dense, alarming lavender? That lavender on the edge of certain molds. So much to consider about lavender.” God’s breathing was ragged.

My therapist heart kicked in. There was something going on here that scared me, but I had to try and help. “Your grip?” I said gently. “And those paunchy-bellied men?”

Black clouds gathered and cracked. Lightning lit the bones of the room. Sadness flooded through broken windows, thin and murky. The apocryphal gruel they serve in soup lines came to mind. It was hard to think, hard to move. Something awful was afoot. I grabbed God’s hand and we fled out the back, down the alley. Hordes of paunchy-bellied men were strewn about like willow branches after a storm. We leapt over the spent carcasses, scrambling, tripping, picking each other up, laughing and crying hysterically.

The alley dead-ended, and a thousand big-thighed women were waiting, like they always wait. They took us in, no strings attached, and fed us a hearty evening meal. Nothing about any of this was lovely or right. It just was.

Utterly exhausted, I rolled myself under a lilac hedge to sleep, but God stayed up until all hours, chewing the fat with the women, reliving the glory days. Their delight disgusted me. “We’re doomed,” I thought as I dozed off. “We’re all fucking doomed.”

An eternity later, God shook me awake. “Shhh,” he said as he took me in his arms. We flew straight toward the fiery orange sun, rising hot in the delicate lavender sky.

 

Through the Broken Looking Glass

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It isn’t an easy morning. I’m washing someone else’s dishes, angry at yet more news from the legislature. “I cannot keep trying to love these idiots,” I think to myself. I hate trying to love my enemies. They are many, and loving them is a terrible, horrible, sickening task. They do not deserve it. They deserve to be drawn and quartered, humiliated, silenced, tarred, feathered, squished like the ugly insects and reptiles that they are.

Why didn’t God nip Lucifer in the bud? Of what use are serpents? Tricksters? Mosquitoes? Isis fighters? Greedy, cruel, old white men? There’s something seriously wrong with a God who lets powerful strangers destroy the earth, force unwilling women to stay pregnant, torture fellow humans, kill other species (and each other) for sport, withhold basic shelter, food, and health care to those without resources. Resources. Fuck resources. Who owns anything? I think I’ve earned the things I own, but I don’t think about it for long because I might have to give it all away. To my enemies.

A soapy glass slips from my hands and hits the porcelain sink. I stare at the shards. Glass is a slow moving liquid, but at high enough temperatures, it flows visibly—a scalding stream of unbearable light. The gods made of glass are dangerous, but gods made of greed will eat you and your offspring and their offspring. So many voracious gods crunching through the bones. I am fixated on broken glass. The kitchen blurs.

“Am I invited to this party?” God says, appearing as a vial of nerve gas in the corner. I back away. “Could I have a hug?” God asks, from the mouths of leaders who amass wealth rather than serve. “Kiss me?” God slurs the words before passing out drunk on the floor.

I run to the stinking body and kiss the molten forehead. I empty the vial of nerve gas on my feet, bury my head in my hands, and pray ferociously for a bigger God or an easier way.

Outside, the complex trill of a meadowlark rises, an anthem of defiance. A declaration of independent joy–of pure seduction. I slide my body off the crowded altar, comb the familiar hairs on my head, and cake myself with thick, wet clay.

“Recognize me?” I whisper to the meadowlark who is God who is spring who is not long for this earth. “I’m under here, and I’m okay.”

I am of no use to the meadowlark, but she sings for me anyway. The clay bakes and cracks and falls away, toxins neutralized, abrasions healed. She sings as evening gathers force. The sparks from a burning cathedral light the sky. Reveal the truth. Illuminate the little moment I’ve lived in, with its soft walls and tiny peek-holes.

“I like what you’ve done with this place,” God says. “But you could use a few more windows.”

“I know,” I say. “But there’s a problem with structural integrity.” And I try to believe myself.

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.

State of the Union

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“I love scientists,” God said, sipping herbal tea, relaxed and open. “I just love them. They try so hard to understand, reveal, predict, and invent. Aren’t they something? Such visionaries.”

“Yeah,” I said. We sat for a while. Then I added. “You know, I’m somewhat of a scientist myself.

“Hmmm,” God said. “I don’t often think of you that way, but now that you mention it, I can see a little scientific mindedness in you. More artist, but sure, a little scientist.”

Well.

My eyebrows bent down, but I pushed them back up to the level of civil discourse. “I love scientists, too,” I said. “But doesn’t it bother you that you’re kept out of the equations so often?”

“What?” God said. “Are you nuts? I don’t have to be recognized to be present. In fact, I get a lot of exercise jogging around in equations and hypotheses. They’re great places to work out. Science-types are like moles, digging into creation. They examine air, stars, creatures deep in the sea. I love that burning desire to understand.” God paused, looking like a proud parent, and added, “I never dreamed they’d come up with the idea of splitting an atom! Wow. Just wow.”

I was aghast. “God!” I yelled, “You know what we’ve done with split atoms, right?”

God gave me that “duh” look and said, “Children take things apart, and sometimes, they can’t get them back together. It’s part of the long, long walk.” God’s voice faltered. I could tell I’d hit a sore spot, but I was unrepentant.

“It’s more than that,” I said, my voice deadly serious. “And you know it.”

God sighed. “Okay. True. Divide and conquer is a primitive strategy. Bringing things together is a more advanced skill than taking them apart.”

If I could’ve held it together, I would’ve given God a “duh” look back. But I lost it and slid into my usual slash and burn. I stomped back and forth on our concrete floor until I gave myself shin splints. I growled until my throat hurt. I punched the air. I kick-boxed with God. My heart rate moved past the aerobic range. I shouted, “We are tragically fractured, and we just keep fracturing further. Human trafficking, walls and greed, gutted landscapes, forced pregnancies, prolonged suffering at the end of life. War. Torture. Starvation. Nuclear waste. And you sit there, admiring scientists and spouting off about bringing things together?”

“Yes,” God said in a stubborn voice. She appeared to be unfazed. “Exactly.”

She sat down and took a sip of tea, trying to hide her tears. I hid mine, too. A long moment passed. Then, a cruel storm blew up, and fierce as a mother eagle, God flung her powerful, protective wings around the cosmos. My reach is maddeningly limited, but I tried to do the same.

Not My Idea

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“You realize America was not my idea, right?” God said. It was more a statement than a question—a comment likely brought on by my sense of alienation and dismay at our current national struggles.

“Duh,” I answered. “That’s painfully clear. I’m not blaming you.” I was washing the dishes with hot, soapy water. “It wasn’t my idea either,” I added.

The radio was on in the background, the ongoing absurdities in the news were ruining my evening. When you’re chatting with God, perspectives shift. The phrase “America First” is revealed for what it is: a puny, frightened declaration of selfishness that flaps defiant and pathetic in the gentle breath of God.

“You know we’re a defective species, right?” I said. I was in a very bad mood.

“Duh,” God answered. “That’s painfully clear.” God began drying the plates with little microbursts of warmth. “And I don’t blame you,” God added. “The blame game is a real dead end. Better to focus on hope.”

“Easy for you to say,” I said. “I got nothing.”

“Well, I think there’s a chance you’ll figure it out,” God said cheerfully. “You people divide yourselves up in the oddest ways. I admire your ingenuity, though it’s tragically misused. The us/them game is far more dangerous than the blame game. But…maybe, maybe. I don’t know. Maybe you’ll realize how damaging these artificial divisions are and stop scaring the pants off yourselves all the time.”

I thought about my fears and my meager progress at overcoming them.

“How’s your throat?” God asked. John and I had just spent six hours driving across the state in the smoke-infused cab of an old box truck we temporarily acquired as an act of charity. Or at least that’s what we think we did.

“Sore,” I answered. This was true. My head hurt and my clothes smelled atrocious.

“Kindness has a price tag,” God said. “Love is messy. Sometimes ugly. Sometimes deadly.”

I’d had enough. “God,” I said in the most patient voice I could muster. “I’m sorry, but I’m not in the mood for this. I’m tired. I feel sorry for myself. It’s cold in here, and I’m homesick for my younger self, when optimism was easier and endings weren’t so often or so clear.”

“I hear you,” God said. “I’m actually not in the mood either. I’m lonely and much older than you can even conjure. Very little agrees with me. Nothing tastes quite right. I’m often as miserable as you are. And for me, there’s no such thing as an ending. Maybe you should be grateful.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “But I’m not.”

We gave each other a halfhearted hug and parted ways–meaning I shut down while God expanded into the ink-black ocean of all that has ever been. I slept soundly in a threadbare hammock suspended between finality and the eternal. Not safe, but somehow, secure.

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.

 

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.”