Permission to Approach
There’s a hurdle when approaching any big subject: just granting yourself permission to approach. I remember a famous “Honeymooners” episode where Ed Norton is teaching Ralph Kramden the fundamentals of golf. In the first lesson, Ed models “addressing the ball.“ He tips his cap and politely says,”Hello, ball!” Ralph isn’t amused.
Granted, God is more complicated than a golf ball. I have assembled a miniature golf course of portals for addressing the whole pantheon—windmill (Creator God) to bird’s nest (Nature God) to tunnel (Avenger God) to lighthouse (Referee God ) to man-cave (Fixer God, also known as…
The Adept Custodian
God invites me over
to watch the Red Sox – Yankees
on the adequate TV
in his furnace-warmed office.
I wouldn’t call
the blue corduroy couch and
bowls of kettle corn “godly”
but they suit me.
He doesn’t flash the magical
influence a god is said to have. We argue
about who controls those powers,
him or humanity. It’s the old who-created-who? debate
that usually ends in a kettle-corn food fight.
I wouldn’t make him too far beyond
what I’m capable of or aspire to.
No burning bush, no
show-off plagues. For me, an adept
custodian, fixer of faucets,
rewirer of doorbells,
and folktale factotum —
A Brief History of a Belief
I seem to recall a time in my childhood when it mattered to certain people whether or not you believed in God. If your answer was heck, yes, you were safe. if you dared to identify yourself as an atheist, though, you could end up with a bloody nose. Belief was aggressive in those swaggering years of the mid-Fifties, and there was no refuge in privacy. Little tolerance for doubt or nuance. Or for tolerance. And in the matter of You vs.The King of the Universe, it was better to be safe than sorry. So as a kid I subscribed to the occasional “Please dear God…[wield your awesome power to keep this relative or that friend or me out of harm’s way]” and even more elaborate addresses mumbled under the covers, like prayers beginning “Oh God, Ruler of the Empire State Building” and sometimes ending with “God forbid it.” There was something undeniably persuasive about a supernatural being whose powers billions of ordinary people accepted. It would take a series of significant events—my dad’s death, my canceled bar mitzvah, and a bunch of riots and assassinations, coupled with the advent of popular human idols like the Beatles, before I decided it was not just okay but advisable to paddle my canoe without the company of a protective, Biblical-era miracle maker. It seemed like an important discard of an old dependency. Also persuasive was that since the Seventies, declaring your atheism to random believers no longer meant getting served a knuckle sandwich.
Omnipotence depends on belief, but deprived of that fuel, a canny, or even an uncanny, god can command unexpected sympathy. I could and in time did, imagine (that was my fuel) a bond between us as fellow creators, fellow characters. True, a writer did not quite measure up to a universe-in-a-week-er. But by accepting the elastic rules of fantasy, we might find a way to work together, the Big Pronoun and me. I would refrain from holding human miseries and miniseries against It and he wouldn’t act like She had all the answers. We might agree on a collaboration based on ideas, I do’s, and I don’ts. And if that sounds like might-y convenient malarkey, well, just donate what credence you can when the can comes around.
Kindly indulge my hopscotching the time line a little further (Hey! No cutting, bub!). What does my choosing God as an essay subject say about the current state of our me-and-Thee relationship? Sez that supreme entities can’t resist the lure of a big pronouncement and, when necessary, Big Pronoun Cement (“for an almighty grip”). Sez that the revising of a role model—be it an adept custodian or the Rock of Ages—is an evolution (wink, wink) inspired by necessity and change. Just as the spark of my current scrutiny owes a lot to the catapulting conundrums of getting old and getting Parkinson’s; and just as a previous revisit had to do with taking a vaguely familiar journey with my son, Matt—introducing him to his Jewish heritage and history, and aiding him on the path that I had abandoned a few months shy of my 13th birthday: namely, preparing for a bar mitzvah.
Right away, this new-old relationship with God was tested by the Torah portion Matt was assigned to intone in Hebrew. It was from the book of Leviticus and described how the two nephews of Moses, the sons of his brother, Aaron, had the effrontery to create an unsanctioned tribute to God, using the wrong kind of incense. I picture a label on the packaging with the warning: ALIEN FIRE! God was incensed by the unauthorized incense. He smote the blasphemers with a mighty smite, vanishing them to wherever it was presumptuous improvisers got smote.
I was initially stunned by this rash act, which was reminiscent of God’s role in the attempted filicide of young Issac by his dad, as described succinctly in Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited:” God said to Abraham, Kill me a son. Abe said God, you must be puttin me on! God say No. Abe say What? God say You can do what you want Abe but next time you see me coming you’d better run…[pause]…Abe say, where you want this killing done? God say, “Down on Highway 61.” But before I could build up a righteous rage I remembered that the whole thing was fiction and the rules of fantasy, which apply to the Bible as to all literature, protect the fictional felon from the judgments of the credulous. Dylan would have made a good witness, too, but no matter. There was potentially useful testimony from another rock god. I could cite John Lennon’s song “God,” with the opening line, God is a concept by which we measure our pain. I’ll say it again. And he goes on to name all the icons he doesn’t believe in anymore— ending, shockingly, with “Beatles.” On the other hand—this is true—I once used Lennon’s description of God as a measurer of pain in the final exam of a Philosophy & Religion class in college, which asked us to define man’s relationship to God. And for my pains and loyalty to an ex-Beatle I got an F on the test and in the class. This no doubt influenced my resolve to never again use God as a measuring device, despite the wide advertising of God’s availability for any human calculation: God knows, God forbid, In God we trust, Lord love a duck, he has more money than God, God bless! Good Lord, Dios mio, Gott in Himmel, Goddamn your eyes, and most especially: omigod, OMG, and oh…my…god!
I’m not quite sure what “using the Lord’s name in vain” means, aside from its being something humans do a lot. In vain as in “uselessly”? Or “with vanity” as in using God as a personal accessory and often as not, a disappointing one? In any case, swearing does seem to be the most common employment we have found for the Big Pronoun. Which must be something of a come-down for any supreme deity, but maybe it goes with the territory of the puissant—or the pissant. Was that an almighty Chuckle I heard?
You can’t help empathizing with our scapegoat-in-chief. Especially when one of us supposedly created the other one in his/her/their own image. There is a resemblance. But what if the job of the Principal of Principles for the Human Race was exactly the burden it seems to be? And what if perfection isn’t any easier up there than it is down here? Should we be worried that on the seventh day, He rested? Rest is good—for us—but for a maker of miracles? Once again I began to recognize a kindred spirit in this guy. I could tell he was a freelancer, like Me (I just wanted to try on the capital letter. Curiously bracing!) Seriously, though, wouldn’t a freelance rivalry explain God’s rage at those two nephews of Moses with their ALIEN FIRE?)
Anyway, these were straws in the wind. I still didn’t believe in an omnipotent Ace of Powers, but I had to admit, I was identifying with him. Poor God! Frankly, he seemed a bit irrelevant to the religious discussion you’d have thought he’d dominate. Oh, he played an important part, of course! the ten commandments, the Red Sea, the tales, the wonders. I’m just saying he interested me more for who he wasn’t than for who he was. Not larger than life, but the same size. And this happened gradually. I mean, I did wonder what the deal was, why God didn’t make more of an impression as a character. I mean, he was God, so, like, omigod, whatever? And why was I talking like this?
Sorry to bend the time line with more hopscotching, bub. To clarify, this bar mitzvah business was before the Yom Kippur understanding, before the dove story (but after its precursor, the woodpecker story) and certainly before “Susi Dog does a backflip.” Suffice to say, I noticed God didn’t have many lines, then or now, especially compared to Moses or even Pharaoh, and I was okay with that, as long as he could do a faithful impression of Charlton Heston. Ethical guidance, not so important. Even in a cultural context, for me God took a back seat to Klezmer music, Fiddler on the Roof, “dayenu,” potato latkes, the Golem, and pride in famous Jews like Zero Mostel and Danny Kaye. (Not Charlton Heston, though. He wasn’t one of ours.)
Yom Kippur was another tradition I towed along with me. Not just because it was the holiest of the high holy days. There was also something (sho)far-reaching about the blowing of the ram’s horn; the deep viola vibe of “Kol Nidre”; and above all the sweet deal of a day of atonement — earning the right to be forgiven for all your misdeeds and regrettable actions of the previous year. Clean slate. And from whom does that forgiveness emanate? To paraphrase the Church Lady on SNL: Could it be…GOD? Hmm. Perhaps certain fictional characters should get one day of rest in the realm of actuality, a kind of reconciliation. After all, atone comes from the words at one, which could mean that people (Heston and Mostel alike!) get to be “at one” with God or at one with nature, or it could mean “God and nature reconciled,” as it says in the Christmas carol (I didn’t even know they’d had a falling-out.) Anyway, more straws in the wind. But when things get muddy, mixing in straw can make for strong brick and mortar. Where am I going with this? No worries: on to the aforementioned Yom Kippur understanding.
One Yom Kippur, in my 20s, I was in New York City near Central Park and, despite the patchy state of my religiosity, I contemplated inviting myself to a holiday service in a nearby shul. Not sure where these notions come from—trolling for a miracle reconciliation of my own? The problem was it remained unfulfilled. Either the shul was closed, or I was inadequately attired, wasn’t a temple membeer, and needed a ticket. Nor was I well-suited to play the part of a lonely un-suited cheder boy hungry for learning. Which explains why I ended up instead reclining on a boulder in an autumny copse in the park, me and nature and maybe the Big Pronoun too, a fine trio of freelancers, one of us trying to figure it out, but not trying too hard. The truth was, I was kind of enjoying my customized, improvised, PDQ approach to Yom Kippur. The boulder wasn’t the comfiest, but I lay on my sweater, and I was digging the crickets, I think. I can’t remember if the weather was co-operative. Not raining, anyway. Mainly I was pleased that I had observed Yom Kippur in my own way. I had discovered something useful, not about God exactly, but about nature dovetailing with self-reflection. I call it the Yom Kippur understanding: repeating, most years, the same template—combining a refuge in a natural setting with a pen and a fresh notepad for taking stock of myself— that originated in Central Park.
Speaking of dovetailing, tailing a dove led me to another kind of divine revelation.Was it a criminal act or a heroic one? Exactly!
The abduction, or rescue, of the dove took place about twelve years ago on a winter evening in Boston. I was setting out on my homeward commute from work, down Boylston St. to the Arlington T stop. There was a snowstorm forecast for that night through the next morning. A sizable accumulation was predicted. My attention was drawn to a particular bird. It was a white dove (or maybe a leucistic pigeon) pattering along the sidewalk ahead of me. I was struck by its unwillingness to fly, despite all the foot traffic and motor traffic lumbering past. I wondered what its back story was. Could it be the escaped dove of a magician, or one of those ambassadors of peace that get released at football games. I could feel an enmeshment in the fortunes of this bird taking hold in me, with the impending blizzard (and its inconvenient camouflage), the apparent disorientation of the little runaway (I’m a-walkin’ through the snow), and above all, the question of how, and if, I should intervene.
Events seemed to plot their course without my help, though I’m not sure how the details played out. I couldn’t tell you how the dove wound up in the vestibule of a Boylston office building. Had it ducked (or dove) in there to evade my clumsy pursuit, or had I managed to herd and corner it? I’m a bit more aware of crouching next to the bird like a cop attending to some homeless soul and sheltering them (with murmured reassurances) inside my black XL leather jacket.
However it unfolded, the deed was done. I kept my passenger safely zipped in for the next hour, changing trains, proceeding past the seven stops from Park St. to Alewife, never revealing to my fellow riders that I was harboring a stowaway (sensing that it would mark me an eccentric, at best), nor did the bird give itself away by coo or flutter.
When I got home, I gave the dove liberty of the garage, where it stayed in the rafters for the next two days. I don’t remember how serious the snowstorm turned out to be. Not historic, anyway. I waited for the weather to be safe for flying before the Moses in me was able to persuade the Pharaoh in me to open the garage door and let the pigeon go. I never saw the moment of escape. I had no reason to suspect catplay. One minute the dove was there, and the next—true to its conjured magic-show past—Poof! Onomato-dis-opoeia!
I had come to the aid of a bird before. I’m thinking of the oft-remembered woodpecker that knocked itself out, flying into our living room window. I was around nine. My dad and I heard the sickening thud and went outside to see. We found the still body by the rhododendrons. It may have been a downy, but more likely a hairy, from its size. (I was beginning to peruse bird books then.) It looked dead. What should we do? Bury it? My dad advocated positioning it behind the exhaust pipe of the idling car. I think it was the first time I rejected a decision of my dad’s. I recommended instead that we take the apparently dead woodpecker to the backyard bird bath. I won it a stay of execution. We lay the bird in a cardboard box and proceeded to the back of the house. I had barely placed it among the bird bath’s soggy leaves when the woodpecker exploded back to life, clambered up my pant leg, and took flight to the safety of the woods.
You might conclude from these events that intervening in feathered affairs isn’t for amateurs. But amateurs are what we are, as well as fellow animals famous for not minding our own business. Maybe the moral is: “Don’t expect a medal for meddling.” I did accept an award from the woodpecker (the climb up my leg) for modestly saving its life. But the heist of the dove did not present so clear a choice between right and wrong. This was dove-napping, pure and simple, and as unprofessional as it gets. Also, it was based on a dubious sense of responsibility. In truth it was less a hero’s act than the duty of a scout pursuing a merit badge— and overdoing it. As if that scout were helping an old lady cross the street—and kept on going, despite her protests (Hey! That was my building!!). Nevertheless, I was so impressed by my own boldness, I awarded myself a medal for “meddling with good intentions.” In fact, the act led me to coin (I thought) a new term for those who aspire to godliness. I dubbed us Junior Gods.
The good thing is, none of us will make Senior God. Who’d want to head-butt that glass ceiling anyway? Gives me a headache just thinking about it. Nor is it one of those tests of strength where you swing a sledgehammer, striving for an ”Oh—My—God!” bell-ring. I pictured the Junior Gods as a community of freelance improvers. Call them the Imp Rovers or Gnomads, whatever name fis, so long as their deeds are rooted in betterment, and not just better for themselves. “Give Lois a silo of soil!” went one of the more obscure but farm-friendly chants. “Better yet!” was more succinct but maybe too understated. Junior Gods famously went through a lot of parade slogans and T-shirt captions like “Improvising for the Common Good” which proved to be a sneer magnet for the many who already took a contemptuous view of these wannabe divinities. The most popular T-shirt by far was the one depicting a scruffy puppy doing a backwards somersault, and named SUSI DOG. No one understood what it meant, but it sure was cute.
Susi Dog Does a Back Flip
Being godly without the burden of being perfect. It’s on us. Get it? Onus? Burden? Ha! Just a coincidence? or proof “there is a God”? Why not both? Sure there’s a God, but we can define it, them, whomsoever, as we please, Including an image or character shared by millions, or the truthful and inclusive basis of widely divergent beliefs. Nor do I insist on consistency in my character. It’s like a dating profile: Fairness, kindness, wisdom are a plus. Must care about the planet, especially birds. Higher power? Knock yourself out. (Take It easy with those lightning bolts, pal.)
Confidentially, I’d settle for a chaperone with a sense of humor. Or an adept custodian. Or the wizard of Oz at the end of the dream, when he makes peace with being human. Humanizing God? It’s only fair. After all, God’s our creation. And we need a designated authority to unload the onus of being human, to download our woes, our oy gevalts. We can borrow God for the same traits we’ve endowed it with. Fair’s fair. Haven’t we made ourselves into useful characters—thinkers, writers, artists, consciences, custodians? If our collaborator in this feat is a higher power, it’s one that depends on our own divine potential. The ventriloquist may give credit to the dummy, but there’s no doubt it’s the ventriloquist’s voice. We are definitely not godly material, but the night is young.. It’s important that we have a front to represent our better angels. Frees us to fuck up (did I say that?), so we can ask God for help.
My portal to the vestibule of godliness was the dove, a well-practiced messenger (see Noah). The idea of God as a sidekick, confidante, and collaborator, dovetails with the not-so-magical but somehow still gasp-worthy fact that it’s time for Susi Dog to do her back flip. In other words, if you “flip back” the letters of Susi Dog, it will reveal a debatable but supportable cryptic truth: God…Is…Us!
Three Junior Gods
As I hinted earlier, the term “Junior Gods” has no claim on originality. But three Google citations I found made me feel in good company. The first and most esoteric use of Junior God was a beginning level in a Skyforge video game. Unlocking your junior god form is apparently a crucial advancement in the game, enabling you to participate in invasions, operations, and intriguingly, Thea. And somewhere in the unlocked distance you might even cross paths with——Elder God.
The second reference steeply downgrades the reward of being a Junior God. The title of Jackie Kendall’s book says it: SURRENDER YOUR JUNIOR GOD BADGE: EVERY WOMAN’S BATTLE FOR CONTROl. Beside it a red Jr God badge icon bears a negating slash. The accompanying blurb explains that women have long labored under the presumption that they must, exhaustingly, always be in control. The truth is, says the author, God is ready and willing to shoulder all your burdens! So give up your role as Junior God, Kendall urges. You have nothing to lose but your chains.
Saving the best for last, I give you this poem by Canada’s bard of the far North, Robert W. Service, in full, from his 1917 collection, Rhymes of a Rolling Stone.
The Junior God
The Junior God looked from his place
In the conning towers of heaven,
And he saw the world through the span of space
Like a giant golf-ball driven.
And because he was bored, as some gods are,
With high celestial mirth,
He clutched the reins of a shooting star,
And he steered it down to earth.
The Junior God, ‘mid leaf and bud,
Passed on with a weary air,
Till lo! he came to a pool of mud
And some hogs were rolling there.
Then in he plunged with gleeful cries,
And down he lay supine;
For they had no mud in paradise,
And they likewise had no swine.
The Junior God forgot himself
He squelched mud through his toes
With the careless joy of a wanton boy
His reckless laughter rose.
Till, tired at last, in a brook close by
He washed off every stain;
Then softly up to the radiant sky
He rose, a god again.
The Junior God now heads the roll
In the list of heaven’s peers;
He sits in the House of High Control,
And he regulates the spheres.
Yet does he wonder, do you suppose,
If, even in gods divine,
The best and wisest may not be those
Who have wallowed awhile with the swine?
Did you notice how this concluding poem starts with a golf ball? As does this essay, “Golfing With Susi Dog”? Must be a sheer coincidence.