To Tell The Truth

“Hello, God,” I said. “I’m glad to see you.”

“No, you’re not,” God said. “And besides, you can’t see me. You’re pretending again.”

“Ha,” I said. “I’m not pretending; I’m extraordinarily brave. I tell it like it is, and I see you as you are.”

“No,” God said, smiling. “To tell the truth, you see me as you are. Yes, in your timid sort of way, you’re brave. I’ll give you that. But at best, on a good day, you see a fraction.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Hide all you want. Bury yourself in round river rock. Roll to the sea and come back as rain. Write one of your names in the sky and erase it before anyone notices. I’m on to you, God.”

God threw back her head and laughed a belly laugh that turned into thunder that turned into earthquakes that turned into fire that burned the forest to ash, and yet…the hatching and birthing and sprouting continued in a clamorous flurry of all that might be and all that has always been. And nothing was essential. And nothing was missing except the deadly little part I was clinging to as if it could save me.

“Don’t look,” I said to God, as I tried to pry open the rusted metal box where I hide most of myself. “Nothing of interest here.” It opened a crack and I could see my inconsequential self looking back at me, pleading.

God stopped laughing and stared at her feet. She traced the grain in the wood floor with her toe. It was clear she had something difficult to say. I started crying. “It’s too late, isn’t it?” I sobbed. “I need one more life. Just one more. I’ll get it right next time, I promise.”

God shook her head solemnly and took my cold hand into her warm ones. We went to harvest the last of the carrots, me still sniffling, thinking my sorrow might generate a bit of sympathy. God, big and earthy. We dug for a while and then God paused, shovel in hand. “Lie down in the weeds and look up,” she said.

“I don’t want to,” I said, wiping my nose. “The ground is hard. The weeds have thorns, and we don’t have time for your nonsense. Winter’s coming.”

God held my gaze and sighed a long sigh that became a steady wind that became flying leaves that became fine dust. “That’s true,” she said, as she laid herself down between the rows. “Winter is coming.”

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.

The Harbinger

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On this somber morning, the chalky smell of old lessons fills my nose, and I remember posing beside a piece of art created to decompose. The Artist lingers nearby, a tortured soul, ready to recompose when the time is right.

Broken birds and fallen women find redemption in the great yellowness of a steady sun. This has always been the Artist’s intention, but it’s hard to admit because we like to make our own little plans and pretend the forts we build will protect us forever. What can we make true by pretending? What do you want to count on? Which lies are you willing to live by or tell the children?

If you mix pure gold with tired red blood you get a burnt orange that catches and holds the holy light so gently even tiny things are seen and safe. I am old, but I miss my mother. I am wise but certain of nothing. I know I’m of use, but I’m not sure why. Even the forgotten are of use, but they don’t know why either.

Once, we were butchering chickens. The uproar was astounding, the panic widespread. My lover, a city boy, was in charge of catching the fat, terrified hens and handing them to the person with the ax. He’d grab one by the leg, cradle her in his arms, and stroke her downy white feathers. “It’ll be okay, little buddy,” he’d say in a soothing voice. “It’ll be okay.” But then, for some reason, he heard himself. He stammered and stepped back, pale and appalled. I think he wanted to abandon his post. But there was no point. It was harvest time. The chickens were plump and ready. It had to be done, and it would be okay. The cosmic joke was on him and the chickens and anyone who fails to grasp redemption. It is neither cheap nor easy, but it is guaranteed. The chickens were perfect and delicious.

Why We Sing

“These are rocky times, God,” I said. “Any advice?”

“Let there be music,” God said in a solemn voice. I nodded. God continued.

“Let there be fire. Let there be brilliance, heat, and force that fractures, reveals, cleanses and transforms. Let the light befriend the darkness, making it gentle and soft like velvet. Let darkness drape itself around things meant to be hidden, preserving the safe hollows where foxes are raising their young. Let the light sing in humble harmony while the baritones and basses of nightfall carry the low, familiar melody of the last song—the song that is sung your first night home.

Let there be joy. Let there be solemn rejoicing. Let there be reveling in joy that knows what it costs. Joy that takes up residence in the mutterings and moanings of a species that preys on itself. Let joy bring the cleansing tears that slide down the weathered cheeks of the rancher out helping the calves be born, facing into the howling wind.

Let there be compassion. Let there be kindness. Let there be a willingness to share the load of firewood and stone. Let there be premeditated unions and permissive individuations and searing partings that speak of what’s been shared—the same beating heart, now two. The eyes that see from within. Let things be known that need no speaking.

Let there be beginnings and conclusions—the kind that come from cell divisions, permeable boundaries, long sips of water, honey on the tongue. Let the dust fly, let the storms brew, let the virginal sky slide open, revealing the well-lit path.” God took a breath.

“We can’t find the well-lit path,” I said. “We’re stumbling.”

“Sing,” God said. “Sing.”

(With thanks to the Missoula Children’s Choir)

 

The Words Live On

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This past week, Ram Dass died. He’d had a stroke in 1997, and his acceptance of that disabling event was inspiring. This morning as I read over quotes that capture his sensibilities, I feel envy. Don’t we all want to be a guru? An old soul? But I say to myself, “Choose your poison, choose your longings, choose your savior. But most importantly choose your words.” Ram Dass knew the power of choice and the power of words, especially after the stroke. Words are part of the way we build up or tear down. We can hurt each other with a simple twist of the tongue. We can speak vicious untruths.

One of the reasons I like God is that God lives so far beyond words. Sure, she stops by, and we chat in English (I am hopelessly monolingual), but sometimes she lifts me by the back of my neck and nestles me down in something indescribably warm and delicious. “What is this place?” I ask by lifting one eyebrow. She laughs.

“I call it forgiveness,” God says. “But you might think of it as gratitude. The place where the best ideas are born. I don’t know. Call it whatever you’d like. Use your words.”

I throw a holiday pillow at God. She’s put a Christmas stocking on her head and wrapped solar LED lights around her waist. “In the beginning was the Word,” she says, teasing, almost giddy. “Why do people ignore that? Word. Word. Word.” She then begins singing. “All you need is Love…da da da da da…All you need is Love. Love. Love is all you need.” She leans in, holding a golden microphone. In the glow, I feel old. Unshiny. Words are escaping me at ever accelerating rates. I want them back. I want fresh starts, clean sheets, no scars. And lots of fancy words. But God just shakes her booty and turns up the volume.

There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be
It’s easy…Love is all you need.

“Lennon and McCartney.” She kisses her fingertips and takes a bow. “Brothers from another planet.” Again, envy. I want to be a brother from another planet. I want to be Ram Dass, Maya Angelo, Sir Paul, Lady Gaga, Nancy Pelosi, Mother Theresa, and Harriett Tubman. I want to matter. The glib assurances of salvation from a distant God, formulas and pat answers—I spit them out. I want to eat first fruits from the magic tree.

“Oh, no you don’t,” God says, suddenly quite serious.  “No, you absolutely do not want to do that. Why on God’s green earth do you think such things?”

“Because someone has to save us from ourselves,” I say. But I know that isn’t true. It’s already too late, and the saving has been neatly wrapped in the dying for longer than anyone but God can remember. God grins at me. “Been there, done that,” she says. “And to tell you the truth, sometimes I wonder if it was worth it.”

Now I’m the one who is suddenly serious. “Oh, it was, baby God,” I say, letting those words take my entire being. “It absolutely was.”

Rodeo

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.