Rodeo

IMG_1091 (2)

Some days, I plague myself and anyone nearby with questions and hypotheses about the human condition. Why the pervasive sadness? Why the slow-burn rage? Why the pitiful denials, the hedonistic greed, and addictions to substances and behaviors that produce a temporary, phony nirvana? Why hoard, hide, and lie? Why hate?

If no one is around to answer, I remind myself that evolving is hard work: Containing and orchestrating our predatory nature (eyes pointed forward), our drive to mate and produce as many offspring as possible (those selfish genes), our instinctual avoidance of pain and death (neurologically hardwired)…

Trudging forward is no small task for the average human. We are also relatively communal—a blessing and a curse–a survival-based attribute (strength in numbers) that goes beyond survival. It’s one of God’s favorite evolutionary tools for prodding us forward (as the prophet Rodney King once said, “People…can we all get along?). Sadly, the answer remains no.

I also remind myself that we’re all mortal. Ironically, this is a relief. We give life our best shot, and then we’re gone: Blips on the screen, leaves in the wind, a brief twinkle in the eye of God. Our evolving and digressing is both individual and cosmic; I acknowledge the death within me, and I honor the dead among us who may yet find life. I hate that I will never have all the little answers. The big answer is love. The lesser ones remain to be worked out.

Snow falls, passions blaze, and the prey lurk meekly around the edges of light, testing the perimeters of the fence. For thousands of generations, we’ve made tools and told stories. Isn’t that remarkable? We’ve built fences, torn them down, and built them again. The earth recycles our bodies and our worst ideas. Broken down–broken way, way down–we are minerals and fragments of hope.

Sometimes God plays the straight man to my darkest humor or the fool to my imagined wisdom. Sometimes, the bad cop, sometimes, the good. There are forces at play I know nothing about; artists at work I have yet to meet. Yes. This is my first rodeo. My only rodeo. God pulls back the curtain, and behold! There’s an entire cheering section rooting for me. I’m riding wild bulls, roping steers, spurring a bucking bronco, and racing to the next barrel, where I’ll circle back around before I head to the finish line, a few strides away.

The party is almost over, but it has yet to begin. The heavens are filled with revelers: chanting monks, croaking frogs, liberated soldiers, plump children, sobbing men, and whirling women. Ah, the beautiful whirling women. Their skirts spin wide as they orbit, as colorful and defiant as umbrellas in Hong Kong. And the tears of the sobbing men; so much to regret. So much to restore. So many fires to gently put to sleep.

Be Ye Perfect

IMG_1635 (2)

God noticed me flipping through the book of Job in the Hebrew Bible. “What do you make of that?” he asked.

“Ah!” I said, startled. “Welcome back.” God had been hitching through Idaho the last I knew. I’d offered him a ride, but he was having too much fun. Now, here he was, dirty, tired, thin, and hungry. “Want a sandwich or something?” I said.

“Sure. Got any hot dogs? No mustard. Milk?”

He ate with gusto, swallowing enormous chunks of hot dog, chased by gulps of milk. “Why’re you reading Job?” he said, mouth full.

I didn’t want to get into it, but God can be quite insistent. “Abortion,” I said. “I’m seeing how Job expressed his wish to have never been born. You know, his longing to go where the unborn go. But it doesn’t matter. It’ll get twisted whichever way the reader wants.”

“Yeah,” God said. “But I didn’t take you for a Bible-thumper anyway.”

I grinned. Me a Bible-thumper? “As if,” I said. “But people use the scriptures with such hatred. I was trying to use them back—for freedom. Justice. Mercy. Common sense. Compassion.”

“Don’t waste your time,” God said. “Back in a few.” He went to shower. I waited, nervous. God was in one of those moods. I hoped the shower would make him sleepy. No such luck. He reappeared, hair slicked back, reeking of sweet aftershave. He stepped to the middle of the room with an air of authority and multiplied. The atmosphere shimmered with many versions of an embodied God. They all wore reading glasses.

“Oh great,” I thought. “God’s brought his own book club.”

They sat cross-legged on my concrete floor. On their laps were copies of the Qur’an, the Bible, poetry anthologies, other holy books, and an array of travel digests. All I had was the Bible I’d been paging through. But that was enough, right?

God sighed in unison. “Never, ever, think you can contain me in the thing you call scripture, or for that matter, words of any sort.” I nodded. I’d known it for a long time. God is God. Words are abstractions. All the Gods nodded.

“Nothing written is without error,” one of them said.

“Nothing can be considered in completeness,” said the next. “We are the Only Completeness.”

“Yes,” said an especially beautiful, fluid God. “You humans are simultaneously healing and dying, growing and receding. The firmament and all your infirmities are in a symbiotic relationship that define each other. There is no perfection, save Process—the pure flow of Compassion.”

“Then take me with you,” I begged. “Please, can I just go with you?” I tossed the Bible aside. God gently put it back and handed me Joy Harjo’s poem, She Had Some Horses  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/141852/she-had-some-horses-590104cf40742

“Soon enough,” she said. “You have a bit more to learn.”

“What? What do I have to learn?” I said, pretending I didn’t have a clue.

God smiled. “We’re hitching to Alabama,” she said. “Can I borrow a twenty?”

I handed her a hundred, and they were gone.

Nada

IMG_1937 (2)

God wasn’t present in any noticeable way this morning, but I had that spidey sense she was hovering somewhere close by. I thought maybe a little chatter would draw her out. “God,” I said. “Sometimes you and I have a communication gap. And I can see why. There’s me. An average, timeworn human–two bumpy hands, a couple of creaky knees, an increasingly unreliable memory, sporadic compassion–and then there’s you. From what we’ve observed so far, you seem to have created 10 billion galaxies, each of which averages 100 billion stars—one, (one!) of which is the fiery orb asserting itself in my own little sky right now.” I tried looking deeply impressed. No response.

“You are absurdly, incomprehensibly intangible, nonbodied, nonbound. You are without need for breath. You are breath. You are beyond time. It’s a toy of yours. You have no name and every name. You are the namer. We have little to nothing in common, but here you are, hanging around.” I thought maybe admitting I could sense her would cause a response. Nope.

“God, look,” I said. “You’ve always treated us humans with respect, even when we amputate compassion, act like idiots, and appropriate the idea of you for our own ends. I wish we didn’t do that, but you have to admit you’re difficult, you big old lunk of creativity. You tiny speck, you source of suffering and disaster, comfort and shelter. You ladybug, sea monster, apple fallen close to the tree. You infectious laugher, chill of death, you decomposer. You teller of the final truth. Most of us don’t like the real you very much.

“I know,” God said, finally speaking up. “But I’m grateful when I can absorb even a little bit of liking. I make do with very little.”

“Someday, I won’t exist,” I said. “Then what?”

“Do I exist?” God answered.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Then, darling, we have something in common after all, don’t we?” God took a long swig of an awful tasting green smoothie I’d made and spit it back in the cup.

“Good lord!” she said. “Why in the world do you drink things like this?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “In fact, right now, I know nothing.”

“Excellent answer,” God said. “You’re lying, but that’s okay. It’s an aspirational nothingness. Another thing that we might have in common. Eventually.”

I thought about that for a minute. Yes, I know nothing for certain, but I speculate endlessly, grabbing what appears to be solid, holding on for dear life. We are splintered, me and God. But there’s something. Something. Or maybe I have it wrong. There’s Nothing. A deep, resonant Nothing where our trueness will finally be at peace.

“Could you give me some space?” I asked God. “Today, you’re too much.”

God gave me a regal nod and complied. In the dead silence, I was as bereft as I’ve ever been. And as loved. And as complete.

Ordinary

IMG_5716 (2)

The morning had gone exceptionally well so I took a minute to say thanks. God shrugged and said, “Everything’s not about you, you know.”

This seemed harsh, but yes, I was a little self-focused. From my personal perspective, slightly magical things had been happening. I’d found four of my favorite coffee mugs at Goodwill, as well as decent boots, muffin tins, and a bigger strainer for my kefir projects. Why not give the Universe a hug back?

“Because smooth sailing and blue cups prove nothing,” God said, arms crossed. “Cancer, heart disease, bad breath, and broken hearts mean nothing. They just are. They are neither omens nor proof.”

“I don’t think you understand,” I said. “That’s cruel. You have no idea what it feels like to be chronically grasping at meaning, vacillating between faith and futility. You have yourself with you all the time.”

“You’ve got a point there,” God said. “But I don’t have it all that easy either. I like seeing you happy, but when you get bogged down in misattributions, I feel the need to adjust your sights.”

Now my arms were crossed. “Fine,” I said. “Adjust away.”

Nostrils flared, stars tumbled, oceans flattened, and rudely awakened from geologic slumber, mountains rose angry and jagged. My hair fell out, my eyes rolled, and there was nothing anywhere to hang on to. Nothing but the vague and slippery idea of God. It hardly seemed enough, but it was all there was. Believe me. All there was. No blue cups. No muffin tins. No loving reassurances. No monsters to kill, no diseases to fight, no paths to discern. Nothing but this idea beyond words—this translucent whisper of the only truth, the only source, the only finality.

“Uncle,” I said to God in existential agony. “I give up. You win. It’s all you. I’m sorry I’m so needy and temporary. I know you’re lonely, even though you’re everything. But what can I do? I’m nothing.”

God startled. “Sorry. I may have over-done it. It’s true you’re nothing, but I forgot to show you that you’re also everything.” God started to fill her lungs for another out-breath.

“Stop!” I shouted, hands over ears, eyes tight shut. “Maybe another time.” I didn’t want to be everything. I needed space to pull myself back together. I wanted a kind of coherence that cannot be spoken. I longed to get in my dented old green van and drive beyond the vanishing point, contained, alone, and untouchable.

“Shotgun,” God said, trying to open the door with the broken handle. Laughter burst from the center of my self-aborption. I was delighted that this bumbling, apologetic God was determined to ride along.

“Okay,” I said, and added, “Thanks for those blue mugs, you old scalawag. I’m not as gullible as you think.”

 

Cookies

IMG_5440 (2).JPG

This morning, I stumbled into a nest of words that swarmed up like wasps and stung me. Disown, disavow, defy, dissent. Renounce, repudiate, reject, rebuff, refute, rebut. Deny. None of these words can ward off a root canal or undo a pregnancy. Even spoken together, they can’t change the meaning or length of any given life. They cannot change what is true. But they can do damage.

“Correct,” God said. She’d stopped by for coffee on her way to the city where these words are far more dangerous. “It’s tempting to deny rather than deal with things. Easier to disown than own up. But where’d you be without dissent when the tanks are at full throttle? Or refute when what is spoken is not true?”

Memories of Tiananmen Square…dissenting bodies flattened into dark stains of blood and flesh. Fast forward, flash back. Locations and causes vary, but it doesn’t end. People as pawns, people as predators. People fleeing or fighting back. People against people.

God turned the radio down and ate another cookie. “I’m not surprised that humans are a migratory species,” she said, rather randomly.

I thought about this for a minute. “Yeah, but it doesn’t seem voluntary,” I said. “People migrate because of disaster, violence, hunger…and they aren’t often well-received.” I pictured people jailed, children caged, battles, conquests, claims, displacements, paperless people pushed back or enslaved. I could see thick walls adorned with razor-sharp metal built to stem the flow of hope that comes disguised as desperation. Migration seemed even more dangerous than dissent.

“Sure,” God said. “Forced migration can be brutal. But humans also just explore. They get bored. They reach higher, dive deeper, and widen the circle. And sometimes, the stranger is welcomed with real hospitality. I like that.”

God’s placid mood slowly drained the toxins from my swollen oppositionalities. Or it could have been the beer. Or the turkeys pacing the fence. Or maybe the return of the Canadian geese, paired and gliding through the snowy sky. Whatever the source, I found the wherewithal to smile.

“I like that, too,” I said, and remembering my manners, I added, “I’m glad you stopped by. Thanks.”

“De nada,” God said. She put a cookie in her pocket. “One for the road.”

“Take more,” I said, pushing the blue plate towards her. “Take as many as you’d like.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” God said. She helped herself to every last cookie. Our eyes met. She grinned. I could see cookie crumbs caught in her teeth. Cookie crumbs on her jacket. Bits of cookie falling from her grasp, turning into a sea of cookies, mountains of cookies, a sky of cookies. A planet of fresh-baked cookies.

“How did you ever get involved with a God like that?” I asked myself as she and her cookie-filled fists faded. I shook my head, but to be honest, I have no regrets. Occasional terror, but no regrets.

State of the Union

edit First pair blue hair

“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 a Snowball’s Chance

img_2044 (2)

This week I heard a priest declare we should look to the birdness of birds and the treeness of trees to discern natural law and thus discern what it might mean to be human, in the humanness sense of human. Strangely, I’ve heard this reasoning used to claim that no one should be gay, but in my view, we should look to the gayness of gay people to better understand this amazing expression of God’s creativity and love of diversity. I realize there may be a religion or two that disagree with me, but the thing is, God has been spoken for and spoken of since there were words. God has been interpreted, proclaimed, defamed, elevated, and killed by various thinkers, writers, and con artists the world over. Unthinkable cruelty is done in the name of God, and astonishing kindness happens without God mentioned in the least. Weird claims are made, political agendas promoted. From a global viewpoint, God is not all that coherent.

“I try to be,” God protested, as this observation formed in my mind.

I’d had my half-beer and my mood was steady and contemplative. “You don’t try that hard,” I said. “That’s why I like you so much. You’re bewildering, illogical, eccentric, peculiar, inexplicable, perplexing, and absurd. You’re preposterous, disconcerting, untamable, unstoppable, and we can only see an infinitesimal fraction of you at any given time. I like that in the Ultimate Authority of the Universe. If you were a lesser being, it might be more aggravating.”

God looked pleased. “Okay, I guess you’re right,” God said. “But I do have a certain consistency.” God looked straight at me. This is an aspect of God I like less well: personal accountability. I am painfully aware that honesty and compassion are behaviors available to all, and equally aware that fancy words and complex philosophies are used to twist these simple truths into flimsy excuses for crusaders of all stripes who maim, torture, extract, extort, cheat, lie, and murder in the name of God.

“God,” I said. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?” God asked, all innocent and mild. My defensive anger flared.

“Step outside,” I said.

God followed me out the back door. I made a snowball and threw it hard. God caught it as if I were just playing around. She rolled it in the blue of sky and ash from our wood stove, waved a turkey feather over it and waited. It took on the hues of our wounded earth and shimmered with a hopeful light. I was sure God was going to throw it back, but I was wrong.

God kept the snowball cradled in her hand, offered me a supportive elbow, and we walked through the deep snow to the river. I forgot my indignation and shame. The splendor of creation shrank my sense of failure and futility. Crusty ice gave the water a sharp winter melody, and we sang along for a while, God and me, arm in arm. As the sun sank, God slipped under the surface and floated away. I waved and wandered home.

There, I found the snowball earth, soft and mushy in my pocket. I was tempted to put it in the freezer and keep it forever, but I knew that would never work. Instead, I put it in my favorite cup and sat by the fire as night descended and the glowing snowball melted into holy water. With considerable trepidation, I knew I would drink it before I went to sleep.