From above, the clouds look like an Antarctica without penguins or one of those Zen Buddhist rock gardens, only bright white and soft. The clouds seem to run together to form one solid mass, like the Antarctic ice and snow that runs forever outward and away. Every wisp and crest and peak of each cloud, a whitecap on the frozen tundra outside my window. But there are rows, too, zigzagged rows that seem too perfect, too neat to look quite like the weathered ridges of Antarctic snow, so as I sit, I imagine, instead, an invisible man dragging a giant rake through the clouds, jagged teeth scraping each row, molding the soft clouds like putty. I wonder, though, how far I can let my imagination run. Can I describe clouds as being like a Zen Buddhist rock garden if they resemble neither gardens nor rocks? And what of the tundra? If there truly is an Antarctica without penguins, why do I see it in the sky? God must really not want penguins to learn how to fly.
The woman next to me is drinking diet Dr. Pepper and eating peanuts from a crinkly plastic bag while her husband snorts and yells “What!” every few minutes because he cannot hear what his wife is saying. A flight attendant pauses in the aisle and says something to the husband who yells even louder because now there are two people speaking to him that he cannot hear. It is eight in the morning, and we are thirty thousand feet above the ground, and I am sad about flightless penguins, so I secretly pray to God that this old woman and her husband’s teeth will fall out someday. I wonder if God will be angry that my first prayer in years is for a husband and wife to lose their teeth.
I don’t remember the last thing I prayed about before praying for this elderly couple and their teeth. When I thought I was religious, I kept a handwritten list of everything I prayed for, and I placed a check mark next to each prayer that I thought had been answered, just so I could keep track of how often God was listening. I’m not sure if I stopped praying because I thought He wasn’t there. The last time we spoke, I might have prayed for true love or a pet rabbit or for rain, but I can’t remember. Maybe it was for a clearer mind, a sign of things right or wrong. Maybe I prayed for my brother’s health, prayed for him to get better, but when I found out that my brother hated religion I decided that maybe I shouldn’t pray for him anymore. I wonder now if I should pray to find that list of prayers, ask God where I left it; I can’t know if He answered any more of my prayers if I don’t know what those prayers were. And I wonder, too, does God answer the prayers of people who don’t answer Him?
Maybe I should apologize to God for being so silent for so long, but I imagine that with so many people praying so often and about so much, God would never notice the one voice that goes missing. I bet God’s mind sounds like a never-ending live auction with an infinite number of auctioneers and bidders all yelling at once, all bidding on different parts of the same item, and I bet God has a headache. Or maybe God’s mind is more like a radio with different frequencies, one for each region of the world. There are too many people for each person to have their own frequency, so I think God would have to divide the frequencies by region; it’s more practical that way. When there is an earthquake or an epidemic or a war, God can tune in to each region and hear every prayer at once. He could listen closely and say, “That region wants stability. That region wants health. That region wants peace.” Then God could quiet the cacophony of misguided prayers and hear only the ones he needed.
More likely, though, I’ll never know what God thinks because we humans have exceptionally poor cosmic bullshit meters. I don’t think we were ever meant to know what goes on inside His head. When He proclaimed to the world, let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth, I think He meant to say, here is curiosity. It is just for you. And when God told Adam and Eve, you may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die, what he really meant was, I know you, for I created you, but you cannot know me. He blessed us with wonder, placed in a box and shut tight with a lid. He told us, ask questions, but He never promised answers, so we cannot call bullshit on God.
I hope I am never someone who tries to call bullshit on God. Many people do, and some people do it very well, but I don’t think it’s useful to try to prove God wrong or to argue His nonexistence. Sometimes, I get so sad for those men who go on T.V. and yell about how much they don’t believe in God. I wish I could sit down with them, maybe outside, lounging under the shady branches of an apple tree, and ask them if they’ve ever felt what it’s like to need God. Sometimes I think that the people who believe in God are the only ones who know what it’s truly like to need Him. I wish I could tell those angry men on T.V. that people will always believe in God, despite how loudly a few men can yell. I would tell them that as long as people keep praying to God, speaking to Him like a father in the sky who rakes peace into the clouds, God may as well exist.
I do not think God exists. When I pray to God, I do not think that I am speaking to a man, a father, who can rake peace into my life as he does with the clouds. I cannot fathom the existence of such a being, so powerful and so unexplained. There are too many bad things in our world for something so hopeful to exist, so try as I might, I cannot will myself to believe in God. And because I cannot believe in God, I love God instead. I love god, the idea, the magnificent idea that there is a father in the sky with the power to save you from the world, to save you from yourself. God, the idea, the all-knowing, all-loving being sitting above the ground, his legs dangling from the edges of puffy, white clouds who waits for me to look upward and wave hello is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. God, the idea, is magnificent, and I do not want to imagine a world without it. A world without a god is a world without hope and without help. I am not ready for that world. Please don’t show me where it is.
Instead, show me the world where God is happy that I’m praying at all, that I even think of Him long enough to close my eyes, open my mouth, and say, “Hello, God.” Maybe I can look out the window, down on those rock garden, Antarctic clouds, and maybe God will be so happy with this address that he will look up at me from his perch, peering through worlds at the girl praying for the downfall of the teeth of an old married couple. Maybe He’ll reply, “Hello to you, my friend.”
Those Antarctic, rock garden clouds are no longer outside my window. I am no longer flying through the sky, no longer praying to hurt old couples and their teeth. “Hey, God,” I say, as I look out the window of my childhood bedroom at the street below. I cannot see the clouds from here, only the trees that have been outside this window for years. The road is the same, the houses are the same, even the cars driving past look like I’ve seen them before. “God, could I pray for the penguins now?” I ask as I close my eyes, imagining how wonderful it must feel to dangle my legs from the edge of a cloud with nothing below me but air. “Could I pray for those birds that will never get the chance to fly over Antarctic, rock garden clouds? I like those clouds, and I think the penguins might like them, too, but it doesn’t seem fair that they’ll never get to see those clouds from above.”
“And God? One more thing?”
The leaves on the trees outside my window rustle in the breeze.