I have been fumbling about the earth for 37 years and some months, and with any luck will remain here for at least that much longer. I hope for more years, of course, many more. If I could keep an agreeable portion of my faculties I would gladly suffer the physical infirmities to cross 80 or even 90 years. I’d welcome 100 too–even if condemned to solitude. And though I am doubtful of claims that the “disease” of aging is one brilliant geneticist away from eradication, I fondle the fantasy as much as any futurist. How magnificent to mark our years by witnessing the erosion of those strange Sedonan plinths that temple the Arizona sky, or to find out once and for all whether freedom is just a trope applied to the long arc of time, or nature’s sacred denominator. Yes, to live so long to live so would be a gift.
Most of you–and by you I mean the roughly six billion or so I have the conceit to address–don’t need such fantasies, because most of you, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jew, believe this world is a kind of bridge, readily crossed on the long way home to God. Even the vast majority of Buddhists believe in a kind of heaven, with emphasis on the “kind of” if we’re talking about Nirvana and emphasis on the “heaven” if we’re talking about Amitabha Buddha’s beatific abode in The Pure Land. I wish I were among you, and that is not a condescension: I support any man’s efforts to transform fireflies into angels. May your tribe increase.
Please don’t mistake me for an atheist, however, because I’m not. God or gods, I throw my lot in with the invisibles, the mysteriums. I believe in the reckless history of smoke, but not its reconstruction. I believe Siva dances and destroys. I believe in the crucifixion and the wine. Honestly, in the realms of the sacred I don’t think it matters much whether you use the singular or the plural–one God, many gods, a bliss of Buddhas, a lineage of ghosts. I mean, have you looked through a telescope lately? I’m pretty sure there’s room for it all.
We have done such a strange thing, railing the gods into these wonderful corporealizations and then forgetting they were railed. Don’t get me wrong, domesticated Gods are magnificent. They carry you far and fast, just as domesticated horses might if we still depended upon them. But it’s important to remember the wild horses too, and not the clichéd ones that couldn’t drag you away, but the ones that wouldn’t care to drag you anywhere, the ones that would trample as soon as shun you. The fickle gods, the wood nymphs and the mad grapplers, what the poet Robinson Jeffers called, “the wild god of the world.”
There’s something to be said for the domesticed Ones too. Take your pick, all of the truths are there: do unto others, suffering, humility, compassion, incomprehensible mystery. But it’s easy to take this God for granted because we live with her. We always take the familiar for granted. But our domesticated gods lose their potency when we forget their “apalling strangeness.” Remember that the same gods who laid down this sun and a billion, billion more besides are the gods who winnow all the wheat in Asia and grind granite into sand grains. The God that is no man or woman, the one that buried bliss so far down in the bone that we have to ply our bodies like animals to root it out, is the same God that gave us a man who washed the feet of whores, and loved the poor and the broken so completely that he let himself be suffocated to death on a stake in the sun. The same gods that fling gamma rays recklessly across the void, laying waste from the comfort of their dark houses to the careful work of a billion years, are also the ones that put Dr. Hawa Abdi to work in Somalia, fighting the cruelty those very gods are indifferent to–an incomprehensibly strange God, indeed.
Of course, some will object that it is the universe only, and that it is cruel, and random, and so hopelessly empty. It is only the accidental arrangement of peptides that stirs our compassion. We are marooned on a hostile island. Alone except for each other. I cannot prove them wrong. And save for the moments I stumble upon ecstasy, I live in the same world. My gods are not benevolent, save through the works of our hands. Neither the tiger nor the asteroid nor the half-life of stars has an amenable human purpose; no, there is no solace save human hands, and the things shaped by them. Still, it’s hard to see a sunset and cry accident, move inside another body and declare chance, shield a stranger from harm and mope about delusion. I believe in God; I just don’t think it matters to him. We could conscript the whole race into an army of atheists, and the gods would go right on exhausting beauty, indifferent to our vagueries.
I suppose there’s no solace in this. And really, though I sling these sentiments about, they’re just sentences–just my attempt to re-write the works of my betters. At 37-years-old my body is past the spectacular stasis of its early 30’s–those few years when a well tended male body can still move like a boy, but more confidently. Now, my right knee swells up if I’m not slow in priming it, and my back discomforts me mysteriously, even on lazy days. I think about my mortality a little more easily though, because I’m fortunate to count these as problems. There’s a whole universe flying apart, and rogue planets without a home, and several billion sapiens suffering far worse than middle age.
Believe me, I know that the gods are without discernible mercy–starve one man, make another stupid with age, lay waste to Africa, take your pick–but they also occasionally show up in a best friend, or in a really cold glass of milk, and sometimes even in a cliché, like a sunset and a whispered exchange by candle light in the empty house you hope to spend the rest of your life loving your woman in. God, like all the wild things, is fickle and fierce, and I superstitiously mutter a prayer every day I stand by his grace–I will do the same for you.