Here’s a Day

I had grasped God’s garment in the void
But my hand slipped
On the rich silk of it.
The ‘everlasting arms’ my sister loved to remember
Must have upheld my leaden weight
From falling, even so,
For though I claw at empty air and feel
Nothing, no embrace,
I have not plummeted.

Denise Levertov, “Suspended”

Here’s a Day

Here’s an example. On the day after I had a beer with my peers in the Department of Education, I received an email. This email was out of the blue. It was from a friend from Minneapolis, a young woman who I knew nearly ten years ago when we both worked at Surdyk’s Cheese Shoppe (Surdyk’s is primarily a liquor store, FYI). She’s beautiful and intelligent and very talented, and recently sober. She sent me an email to say she was 158 days sober and things were going brilliantly! I read the email and felt elated for her! This was no small feat. But I naturally felt simultaneously conflicted. I slumped back in my chair. Why did she contact me now? Why today, the exact day after my first effort at reintegrating drinking into my life? I’d reached out to her before, without reply, and now this. On today of all days. Was it a sign? Of fucking course it was a sign. It was not just a sign, though. It was a punishment.

That was two weeks ago. Then. Today. I woke up. Late. Naturally I slept through my alarm. (I don’t know anyone who can sleep through an alarm like I can.) I woke up and scanned my phone for any frightening emails from my boss. Luckily, nada. But! There was another message. A message that read:
“To B kind is more important than to b right. Many times what ppl need is not a brilliant mind that speaks but a special heart that listens Gd Mornin GOD LUVS U”

A-ha. What? I didn't have time to investigate. I popped out of bed and hastily showered and dressed. The message stayed in my mind, however, presiding over me as I brushed my teeth, swept my hair into a pony tail, pulled up my tights and fed the dog its bone. The message came from a number, but not a number I’d entered into my phone, an unfamiliar number. Who was it? Who was sending me this crap? ... Or was it crap? Was this another mother-effing message? Was God punishing me? What did it all mean? I looked at the number again. The area code was 267, AKA the Phila area. I replied, “Sorry to ask, but who is this?”

Around 9:30 a.m. I walked into work (well, slipped into work is more like it) and waved hello as I skirted the admin and hurried towards my office. I opened the door and sat at my desk. How to begin? How to even fucking begin. Suddenly, I remembered I’d asked everyone on our floor to clean their stuff out of the refrigerator by yesterday evening. (I know. The worst. But, you have not seen this particular refrigerator. It is absolutely bombed; it has been decimated by people who’ve come and gone, never to return. So I wanted to give everyone a fair chance to claim their well-expired goods before I personally swept it clean and gave it a good old bleach dunking.) As I washed out decade-old containers of plum sauce and hummus, and dumped unidentifiable objects wrapped in foil into the waste can, and collected plastic bags in order to recycle them, I had a thought: I am happier doing this kind of thing than most anything else. That’s probably not a good sign. I finished the majority of my task (along with sleeping in, I'm really good at dividing simple tasks into multiple-stage endeavors), then I made a cup of coffee and returned to my office.

Before checking the internet for news on Lindsay Lohan et al, I checked my phone, to see if I had a response, or simply, a clue. Nothing. I forwarded the message to my best friend in New York with a comment like: why this? why now? She emailed me back within a minute and said, “I just called the number. A guy answered. I asked ‘who is this?’ and he said ‘Gary.’ Do you know any Gary’s?” I thought about it… no, I didn’t think so. Then my phone beeped. “Hi! It’s Gary! We spoke once at this church gathering… hope all is well.” Oh, yes, I remembered him. He was an older man, kind, offbeat, recovering alcoholic, very into the Word, friendly, etc. I’d given him my email address. So. Now he’d sent me a message from his phone. But, why? And why these words? Did it mean anything?

I stood up and looked out my office windows at the cloudy day. What the heck was my problem that I had to analyze every little thing instead of doing the rational thing and saying: “whatever.” Why did I have to hypothesize and conjecture and extrapolate and ratiocinate? Was it out of guilt? For what, exactly (several options here...)? Out of fear? An overactive imagination? My Lutheran upbringing (Lutheranism is a pretty low-key religion, all told, but it’s not without a healthy sense of “sinners are punished”)? Was all of this retribution for my recent foray into reintegrating drinking? I’d had a beer with the ladies two weeks ago, and now a glass of wine at dinner with my in-laws on Saturday. Was it the overcast skies in Philadelphia this morning? The fact that Florence Welch was singing “Shake it Off” on the radio as I drove in to work? Or was all of this confusion something I, internally, was creating? This fear. What was it rooted in? It was different than the fear of God that I’d used to guide my life when I was a little girl, and then a tween, and then a teenager, and then, even, a college student. That was something that, for all its ill, felt instructive, not paralyzing. I relied on it the way someone relies on any ethical or moral system. But, perhaps, I relied a little to intently. When I was younger, I quite literally told people I wanted to be a nun when I grew up. Like Alice (in Woody Allen’s excellent film of the same name) I romanticized the life of an abstemious but determined self-martyr who exemplified sheer goodness and love. Like Alice, I felt confused and mildly tormented by what other people saw as: just normal life.

And, like Alice, I believed, ardently, that people were truly good. Regardless of the occasional villain or monster or genocidal maniac, I thought most people wanted not just their own happiness and well being, but the happiness and well being of all. That most people were invested in doing right, and living righteously. I insisted this was case, well into my twenties, despite astonishing evidence to the contrary (see previous posts on this blog).

The nun dream had died during a conversation with one of the first loves of my life. He was a year older, already in college, and one evening, we were talking on the phone. I said something about my dream of becoming a nun. He said, “But why would God want you to live without all the many experiences of life?” Oh shit. He had me stumped. His question was confounding. I thought of “Green Dolphin Street.” The scene where Donna Reed is climbing up a rock face, towards safety, trying to outrun the encroaching tide. She climbs and climbs until she reaches the top. There she discovers a convent. Up there, on the top of a rock. And in this place, away from all her life’s miseries and travails, she finds her calling. The romance of this idea felt as sweeping as the tide. And now it was being taken away, by a rational argument. (N. B. Green Dolphin Street (1947) is a must see. Set in 19th-century Europe and New Zealand, this epic romance tells the story of two beautiful sisters, one headstrong (Lana Turner) and one gentle (Donna Reed), and of the man (Richard Hart) who marries one even though he loves the other.)

It wasn’t until I was nineteen years old, studying abroad in Italy for the year, that I had my first crisis of faith. Oh, do not misunderstand, I absolutely had a healthy sense of doubt about all of it since the very beginning. I’d question the poor youth minister into a corner, causing him to throw his hands up. I’d pestered my confirmation teacher into smiling compassionately and saying: “these are good questions.” I can recall, wincingly, an argument I had with a girl as we drove home from gymnastics practice. We were talking about church and faith and I said something vile like: “your mom believes in God the way children do, without any skepticism or analysis.” She said, “I think that’s a nice way of believing in God.” When I was a Sophomore in high school I read the Book of Revelation in my bedroom, and after twenty minutes of stunned and silent rocking, I ran up to the kitchen, where my dad was stirring tomato sauce on the stove, and cried: “we’re fucked!” I remember he handled the situation deftly, replying: “That book has been discounted by most scholars as the raving of a madman.” I’d certainly taken into account the issue of the world’s religions: how could there be so many saviors? So many Gods? So many credos? And what about those born before the coming of God's son and/or the rest of them? And, yes, I was well aware that women didn’t bode so well in all of this (I remember not braiding my hair for a period, because of a passage I read in the BIBLE that said something like "ye women shalt not braid your hair or prettify yourselves..."). But it wasn’t until I was completely removed from my home, my country, my sense of security, that I really felt, in my bones, that something wasn’t right, something didn’t fit together. I wanted God to feel as real as before, and Jesus to provide the same sense of comfort and security. I wanted all of this to feel like my anchor, especially when there was quite literally nothing else to sustain or guide me. But suddenly I felt adrift, unmoored. Religion felt more like a mirage, a false idol, a nice idea (a la Frances Farmer’s famous analogy of God to Santa Claus); it felt like something I was using to console myself—not something that I felt was actually real, true.

I couldn't accept espousing a belief I didn't believe, so, with no other option, I let it go. Naturally, when I cast religion off, I fell into a depression. How could I not? The defining principle of my life had been swept out from under me. How to make sense of the randomness? The wanton cruelty? The terrible fates that befell so many? If they were not to be repaid, so to speak, in heaven, what in the fuck did it all amount to? I couldn’t answer this, nor could my psychotherapist, nor could my anti-depressant/anti-anxiety drug, and nor could a bottle of wine. Some things, however, did help. Running helped. Yoga never did it for me (except for Bikram), but I know it helps many others. Coffee helped. Friends and social life helped immensely. Oh, and disastrous love helped almost entirely. But nothing helped quite long or full enough.

When the distractions and endorphins died down, I found I missed something. I missed God.

I am not the first person to whom this has happened. Sometimes this missing causes people to reclaim their faith, in spite of the nagging fear that they don’t really, truly, sincerely believe. Sometimes such a person will become “spiritual.” Sometimes this person will happen upon a person, a future partner, who will usher them back into the fold. My partner asked me on our first date: do you believe in God? I cannot remember the exact circumstance that prompted the question, but I answered, “Well, I’m not sure, I guess, no, I don’t. But, for a long time, I did.” He nodded, “Do you think that’s something you could see yourself going back to?” I thought: does he want me to say, yes? I answered truthfully, “I don’t know.” He nodded again, and sipped his wine. As it turned out, he was hoping I would say, “Oh, hell no!” He’s an avowed atheist, not strident or preachy, but not wishy washy either. He is not easily swayed by rhetoric of any kind, especially rhetoric that plays on people’s fears. Once, we were driving past a church and there was a big banner that said: STUDY THE BIBLE THIS SUMMER. He muttered, “Study the words of madmen this summer…” My husband is off the charts generous, kind, loving, sensitive, and hilarious. He doesn’t have to justify his beliefs to anybody, including me. And despite his own beliefs, he does not get excited about telling others how to live their lives and what to think. And he, despite his cool demeanor, has his own questions, fears, thoughts, and glances into the abyss.

Recently, less recently than the message I received this morning, but more recently than the first date with my husband, I've begun to think with greater nuance about the role of religion and belief; how these things function in our lives as they are lived. There's a book by a woman named Kathleen Norris in which this topic is addressed directly and obliquely, and openly. Norris grew up in the church, but as many of us do, she grew away from it in her adult life. At some point, she found her way back. She was living in New York and making a living as a writer, along with her poet husband, when her grandparents died, and she inherited their farm in Lemmon, South Dakota. Norris and her husband moved to Lemmon and took over the farm, where they have remained, for the last thirty-plus years. In her book, DAKOTA, she writes, “During that time I became a writer. I used to think that writing had substituted for religion in my life, but I’ve come to see that it has acted as a spiritual discipline, giving me the tools I needed to rediscover my religious heritage. It is my Christian inheritance that largely defines me, but for years I didn’t know that.” (92) Norris is a pragmatic thinker, and hardly a mystic or ascetic. “Religious life, as lived experience, draws more from the well of emotions than from abstractly reasoned theologies and church structures.” (203) And, quoting a Quaker friend, she shared this beautiful gem: “Trust comes before belief and faith is a response to love more than an acceptance of dogma.” (96) In a recent conversation, when I broached the topic of a return to religion (meaning, I would convert to his native Judaism, or I would return to my Lutheran roots) my husband, the loving cynic, kept an open mind and displayed a warm countenance: “Whatever makes you most happy,” he said, wrapping his arms around me. It wasn't dismissive; it was compassionate.

There's no good place to end this post, and I certainly don't mean to write anything here that offends or dismisses or castigates. At the end of the day, as they say in England (a country that I believe has more atheists than any other), at the end of the day, I don’t know what it matters if there is a heaven, or a God, or a savior. I think what matters is we draw some peace of mind from the fact that we are all here now, and some humor from the fact that despite divine inspiration and deep feeling and rigorous study and experimentation, none of us holds the answer to the riddle and mystery of this truly mysterious and insane thing called life.

Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive
to action and inaction.
Remain in stasis, blown sand
stings your face, anemones
shrivel in rock pools no wave renews.
Clean the littered beach, clear
the lines of a forming poem,
the waters flood inward.
Dull stones again fulfill
their glowing destinies, and emptiness
is a cup, and holds
the ocean.
Denise Levertov, from “The Tide”

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