Red Box

Red box

God and I are meandering down the alley. I’m on foot. God’s doing a high-wire act to make me laugh. There are crows, evidence of squirrels, and things discarded littering our way. Among the riffraff I find the redeemable. I offer thanks for the empty gift box flashing fancy red from a garbage can, and driftwood, smooth as skin, and seven or eight green apples, all bruised from the fall. I commune with the broken, hoping to catch a direct glimpse of my constant, often invisible, sometimes putrid companion who hides among the worst of it. The ways of God aren’t always pretty, safe, or easy. But I’ve learned to never, ever sanitize God. It causes a crippling loss of the sensations that make us human.

Today, it appears God wants to be silly, but shoes hanging by their laces from electrical lines don’t do much for me. Everything seems stupid. “Hey Goofball,” I venture. “Could you stop clowning around? I don’t want to laugh right now.” Honesty usually works well with the Holy Goofball. She can make her hide thicker than a crocodile’s. But this time, her skin is thin and she’s reactive.

“What makes you think this is for you?” she asks, voice sharp and petulant. “It isn’t always about you.” I look around. Lilac bushes are wilting. Alley weeds transgress, ugly and aggressive. Dust and smoke swirl. And then I notice that a muttering woman with a Safeway shopping cart has turned toward us. Why’d she turn? It isn’t even a paved alley. But here she comes. Snarling. Incoherent. A small, vicious world pulled tight around her—she’s walled herself off from gentleness, reason, or even meaningful contact. She’s a one-winged bird, flapping low. The gravel impedes her progress, but even so, she’s steadily getting closer.

Unhinged people frighten me.

Of course, I know, you know, God is permanently, proudly, unhinged. An ever-present danger to my complacency. Ultimately, it’s always God pushing the shopping cart, arriving as requested. I often wonder why I ask. But this is irrelevant. The street lady comes for us all, requested or not.

She waits, scowling, while I meekly climb in. There’s room for my red box, the driftwood, and a few of the apples. I am adding to her burden, but I see no other option. This unflinching, castoff God shows me the way, holding a fractured mirror.

My real home is a borrowed wire cage, my shelter permeable, mostly imagined. I am wilting lilacs, aggressive weeds, swirling smoke and fine gray dust. I am the favored child of an unhinged God, waiting to see what will happen next.

Charitable Giving

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I positioned my cold feet in the warm sunlight, determined to sit until the embers in the stove or the chickadees outside the window convinced me that anything matters. So far, it hasn’t worked. I’m in a wicked post-holiday mood. I just threw out three beautifully-rising loaves of bread after discovering that flax can indeed go rancid, and this is not good for you. I’d taken a little taste of the dough. It was unusually bitter, which led to the research, which led to the painful placement of the loaves in the compost bucket. I hate that things go rancid.

I want everything to stay whole and healthy, even in large quantities. I often cloak my hoarding tendencies under colorful claims of creativity and eventuality. But I know the truth about me. I’m a mixture of pioneer ancestors and an excessive culture. Like God, I see potential redemption in even the worst of the worst, and try to make use of everything. I hate letting go.

The chickadees are gone. Wild turkeys are pacing the perimeter of the garden, calculating whether flying over the tall fence will result in enough nourishment to justify the energy expenditure. They don’t know about the rancid flax-laden dough about to appear. This may sway their decision. I trust their digestive systems can make use of rancid flax, or they’ll know enough to turn up their pointy beaks and strut away.

“And you?” God says gently, speaking from deep within the pile of nearly-rotten wood I’m trying to burn up.

I pause to think of myself as a calculating turkey, pacing the outer edge of Eden. “No idea,” I answer. That kind of wisdom is a distant memory in the oldest part of my aging brain. But what I do know is that a great, rancid toxicity is blanketing the earth from massive accumulations of wealth. And I don’t know how to shake it off. Even as I scorn the greed of those who have too much, I wonder how I can get a little more. I hate this about myself.

I try my usual cure. “Give until it hurts, you selfish hypocrite,” I say in a nearby mirror.

God rushes toward me like a grandmother saving a child from a coiled rattlesnake.

“No!” she shouts, waving her arms. “No. Stop it. That kind of talk doesn’t help anyone.”

I jump back, startled. She throws a blanket over the mirror.

“Take a beer and sit among your possessions,” she says sternly. “Be in your body. Be in my body. Open your soul. And notice where it hurts, darling. Then, gently, give. But give until it heals. That’s all. Give until it heals.”

This is a complete impossibility. But that’s one of the things I like about God. She often pairs the impossible with dark beer.

 

Texas hold ’em

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Just outside my window, near my elbow, a mourning dove is calling. It’s God. I know because of the way the sound has cracked me open. There are days when I wear layers of down, warm and pliant. It’s easy to move, propelled by gratitude, aware of eternity. And there are days I when I roll out of bed straight into my specially-made armor—harder to make breakfast but easier to hold it together. In my armor, there’s very little light, even less wonder, and it’s a bad idea to cry. This day began with armor. Now, I’m going to take it off. This may be a day I’ll need to cry.

The wind howled from the mouth of hell through the night. Only a breeze remains. Enough to lift the blue spruce branches so they can wave and remind me of what they’ve seen. Later, I’ll gather the fallen bits and pieces and make a wreath from the shedding and stripping of all we endure. Nothing goes unnoticed. Nothing goes unused or unattended. Nothing goes uncounted. And nothing remains unscathed. This is the promise of second-hand ribbons and wind-fallen sticks.

Usually, I think God is the source of pain in my heart, forming and reforming the never-ending questions of compassion, autonomy, endurance, and finality. Of course, alternatively, the pain in my heart might be indigestion or cardiac blockages soon to dislodge and take me out.

Life is one big game of poker. I like to sing along with Kenny Rogers, my spiritual guide: You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.*

I’m still sittin’ at the table, grinning like a damn fool. I know my face gives me away. I suspect I’m in hock up to my ears, but I know the Dealer. He happens to own this place. I wish he had higher standards. Some of these players smell terrible, some appear almost dead. And the table needs work. But the cards keep coming, so I’ll ante up. For now.

 

*Kenny Rogers sang it. Don Schlitz wrote it in 1976.

Mexico (in two stanzas)

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I

COFFEE

In Mexico, watching a purple bus drift by, I am expansive. I could break into a million pieces of particularity. My coffee is covered against the sparrow droppings, tiny feathers driven down by the trickster wind swirling around me. Moments ago, it grabbed my pesos and I had to kneel in the street to retrieve them.

With these words, I issue a summons to you, God of bent umbrellas, of fuscia bougainvillea, God of soft round buttocks wobbling along the narrow streets. People, larger and smaller than you intended, unaware of their great beauty. I summon you because I do not speak this language. I want to tell them I love them. And they frighten me.

The cobblestone streets have pools of muddy water where the image of God is repeatedly distorted.

God slides into a chair beside me. “Bend,” he says with a heavy Spanish accent.

I am bent.

“Look within.”

I look. There it is. The belly, the underbelly, the future and the past. I’m not among the young, nor the fragile. I’m pale and bewildered. I wonder if something, somewhere, might nourish my roots or clarify the shadows lurking on the horizon. The pathetic little cactus in the door is dead.

God holds the sky. With as much dignity as I can muster, I pay the check and step into the downpour.

II

MASSAGE

It was a nice massage until God showed up. She changed the music to random cosmic sounds and began slinging my head around like a bowling ball, doing long probing strokes down both sides of my neck. Sometimes, God doesn’t know her own strength.

I groaned involuntarily. God said something in Spanish.

“No habla Espanol,” I said, my voice mingled with indignation and shame. This was not news to God, but I wasn’t sure what else to say.

I’ve seen God lurking in the streets here in San Miguel de Allende since that first morning, but until the massage, we’d not had much contact. The colors are distractingly vibrant here; the traffic, the people constant and close. And bells. So many bells calling everyone to Mass. In India, the calls to prayer were just as insistent. I wonder if God attends now and then. Usually, I think she just sits on the side of the road, hand extended, eyes shaded. This is where the devil sits too. No wonder they ring so many bells.

God’s elbow dug into my trapezius muscle on the right. It’s always sore there. I winced. What could I possibly say to defend myself? God was energized, almost giddy. The musical tones and rhythms were accelerating. God’s talons circled my middle, I softened to feathers, and we soared skyward until earth blurred to a massive indistinction, like the abstract art at the Institute, suggesting–but not insisting–on life.

Mirrors

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The mirror this morning was blurry. Dim light showing only the essential outline of myself. I wanted no further clarity. “Does anyone want to see clearly?” I ask myself. “We’ve all fallen in love with this hazy image of ourselves. Aren’t we pretty? Aren’t we smart? Aren’t we worth saving?”

“Well, yes and no,” God says, startling me. I don’t know why God has to be so stealthy sometimes. In certain contexts, it could be devastating, but I’ve grown grudgingly accustomed to these sudden visits.

“Hello, God,” I say, not in a friendly tone.

“Hello, my dear,” God says. Is there mockery in that tone? Is that a smirk on God’s face? Why are the clouds gathering? Why are the birds so jittery? Is this it? Was it a mistake to paint the old bicycles bright colors and pretend they could fly? Was it sinful to spray the weeds with poison? Trap the mice? Carve out a selfish sanctuary, filled with food, and sustenance for my soul? Am I violating the stone when I slice it open to see what’s inside? Am I a fool to drink dark beer at dawn? Tell me, God. What is it?

“Good lord, what’s wrong with you?” God says. “Calm down.”

“I can’t,” I say. “Your plans frighten me. Your ways enrage me. There are too many stars. I don’t know who I am.”

“That’s totally understandable,” God says in a calming voice. “Perhaps it would be better if you suspended your faith for a while. I don’t need you to believe in me, you know. You can cut me loose. I’ll be fine.”

I swallow and keep my stinging eyes closed. “What good would that do?” I ask. “The sparrows will still eat the strawberries before they’re ripe. I’ll grow more feeble and gray. The children will blossom and fade. I won’t finish half of what I wish I could, and I doubt it would make me, um, whatever it is that I think I want.”

“Exactly,” God says. “Exactly. And I’ll love you, either way. I actually don’t need anyone to believe in me. The belief that matters flows the other way.”

The blurred mirror begins to splinter, cracks threading their way through the once-solid glass. My image is webbed with tributaries. Then it disappears as shards rain down, sharp and dangerous. I sweep them up and set out for the landfill, where it’s free to get rid of almost anything. Shattered lives, broken glass, carcasses of little yellow birds.

Sometimes, the guy at the dump saves something back for one more round of usefulness. Maybe, today, there’ll be a treasure to redeem. Or maybe not. I’ll be fine, either way.

Attacking the morning

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I’ve attacked the morning, vacillating between quiet desperation and grim  determination. God stopped by numerous times yesterday, causing internal turmoil and external chaos. Things went wrong. The septic system backed up, the radios all stopped broadcasting, the window coverings failed, the befuddlement of age scrambled my thoughts. I said sarcastic things, and was almost mean—okay, maybe full-on mean–thus failing the most elementary of God’s little exams. Oh feeble creature that I am. Yes, I can hear the fundamentalist among us quoting Romans to me. Fine. But are you aware that God is both the heckler and the heckled? The wound and the balm? God’s the hot dogs and beer–and God’s the hangover. God’s the 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon with a side of caviar, and the species endangered by such excess. God is the manna, and the little organism that made the manna rot.

Here’s what I say to myself: Get real. Get humble. Get over yourself. Get going.

And God, what do you say?

The alfalfa is vibrant; the sky, hazy. The river runs clear, the turkey vultures eat carrion. All the while, the sun grows more brutal and insistent. God is late. She has that prerogative, but I find it nearly intolerable. In my impatience, I run my hand over my face and half of it falls off. Then the other half. My worst fears explode. I am faceless. Nameless. Alone. An old fool, thinking that I matter in some unique way. Thinking I’m something other than ordinary.

My grandmother once told me I was plain. She met my glare directly, squared her shoulders and added, “But you have piercing eyes, and I like the way you see the world.”

My eyes are still in my head, God. But the world looks jagged. My ears hear sabers rattling. My heart is blunted, predicting disaster, doing nothing. I’m glad my face fell off. I don’t want it anymore.

But the potter has finally arrived. With strong, sure fingers, she takes thick clay soil from an undisturbed spot in the garden and recreates the face I will continue to inhabit. It has loose, permissive skin. She calms my soul and kisses the top of my head. “Take heart,” she says. And I know I will try.

We sit down together on a pallet filled with rusted metal I’ve collected. Survey the stones I’ve gathered. It is the sixth day. “It’s good,” she says, finally. “Very good.” And then she is gone.

Purple Chair

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Some weeks ago, I had three ugly chairs to deal with. Donate? Trash? Hide them away in the abandoned chicken house? I also happened to have three small cans of paint. Lime green, purple, and burgundy. And a paint brush, and a what-the-hell attitude. No one I know will live long enough to entirely declutter. Yanking something back from the brink of the landfill is one of my favorite things. This is why God and I relate so well.

Now, in this lonely morning space, the purple one holds my gaze, shiny and redeemed, imperfect but gracious. The worn sofa accommodates my shifting weight, and the three of us form a temporary universe.

To my left, the accusatory past, the glory days, my living children, my dead friends. The seductive urge to rewrite. Compelling grief mingled with steady resurrections made possible because I remember and remember. But I can’t stay long. The urgency of Now will overpower, as it should.

To my right, the slim future bulges with what-ifs and how-abouts. Ungainly opportunities, bloated with longing and contradictions. Oh, I know the future is not an all-you-can-eat affair, but I wish it were. This is brave of me to admit. I’m a greedy hog, wanting unlimited, tasty dishes served to me, day and night, forever.

The purple chair shimmers in light filtered by fire. Thick smoke has hidden the mountain. My lungs are burning and I’ve begun to cry for help, like a child lost. But I’m not lost. I’m centered in this precarious place between myself and a world growing dryer and more flammable in the glaring clarity of heat.

Soon, I’ll lift myself from the stillness and drive, a long solo journey. I’ll fly across expanses that reverberate with a humble God. A dying God. A green God, pregnant with an eternity no one can grasp. But I know a little about it, thanks to the purple chair, and this moment, the fire, and a slew of generous gifts from departed friends and long-forgotten enemies.

It is enough. Oh, wait. One more confession: I always want more than enough. But I’m slowly learning that more than enough can be a very toxic blessing.

Just so. Enough