December 14, 2004

To Each Other Linked

One of my favorite holiday quotes comes from My So-Called Life when Danielle whines, "Do we have to keep talking about religion? It's Christmas."

In this month of December, it's hard not to talk about, or at least think about, religion. At least a little bit.

Like I'm sure a lot of people have, I've gone through ups and downs with what I do and don't believe throughout my life. I've had intensely faith-filled times, mostly bolstered by summers away at faith-filled summer camps in the woods or the mountains so beautiful that it only made sense to believe in God, and periods of a complete faith void. When I was recently reading through my paper journal from 1994, I saw that I had written that I didn't believe in God, and I was obviously kind of troubled by that but had also made a kind of peace with it.

My parents' faith is pretty much the main thing in their lives. I see the good that it has done for them. It got my mother through her parents' divorce as a little girl in a town where everyone was Catholic and there was no such thing. She went to daily mass and prayed that God would find her a good husband who would be a good father, and after thirty-five years of marriage, she still believes that God answered that prayer. So how can I judge her for a faith that in her mind did bring her the good man who is my father with whom she is still so in love and that has brought so much peace to her in all other areas of her life. And my dad, who fell off of his bicycle and compares it to Paul's being struck off his horse, who grew up with very spiritual mother but didn't find his own deep faith until his adulthood É his faith is also real and true. And they are both so good, and they are both so kind and wise and thoughtful (not just thoughtful as in considerate but thoughtful as in they are thinkers), and they are both so imperfect and terribly human, that I can't totally turn my back on the idea that faith can be a good thing.

This is not something I choose to discuss with my parents, because they love me, and they love God, and I believe that their knowing concretely that I do not believe would cause them such anguish that I don't feel that my expressing myself about it is worth that. I don't feel like I'm actively lying, because it's just not something that we talk about. I think on some level they would appreciate the idea of the search, because they are searchers themselves, but I think it would send them into a feverish intervention-themed prayer overdrive the likes of which has never before been seen, and I don't want to burden them with that. I am sure they worry about all of us kids enough as it is. And I don't want our relationship to become one of their worrying about the salvation of my soul or trying to find ways to help me believe or beating themselves up daily for failing to instill in me their belief. I just will not do that to them or to me. I like our relationship the way it is. It works. I won't sacrifice that to say, "THIS IS MY STANCE." Because it is my stance right now, but it might not be forever. I am still searching for what is truth to me.

As far as organized religion goes, I like the idea of people having a community to call their own if that is what they want and what they need. I know it's a place where friendships are forged and where people know they will always have a kind of home in their darkest times. Looking at it that way, I think that a faith-centered community can be a really good thing. I even like the idea of always being able to call my family's church my own faith-centered community even if I don't share that faith. And that might sound very weird, but it's kind of where I am right now. I will never be able to totally turn my back on that place. I hardly ever go, and it's not like I am an active member, but it is such a focal point in my family's life that it will always mean something to me. I mean, that's where we all went to school for nine years. It's where we got great educations. It's where we learned how to learn, where we went in as teeny little kindergartners and went out going through puberty. It's where I met the people who are my two closest friends to this day. It's why I still call myself a Catholic, even though I know that makes no sense.

And in the shitty shitty shit of last year when I was just floundering and felt lost and worthless, I am not afraid to admit that I sought God. I was desperate. I wanted to understand what was happening and why. I wanted to believe that someone out there was looking after me and would make sure that I was going to be okay. And I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with doing that. If there is a God, in my mind, he wouldn't mind that I did that.

I can say that I don't believe, but I can also say that I'm not ready to say that I know that there is no God. I guess to me there's a difference between believing and knowing. And I feel like I can be firm in what I don't believe but not firm in what I do know. That makes sense in my head, but it might not when I try to say it out loud. Is this agnosticism? I guess maybe it is. I don't know.

As for what I do believe in, I believe in people. I believe that we are all connected. I believe that things happen for a reason and that people come in and out of our lives to teach us things that we need to learn. I believe in all of the weird talents that each of us has and how life gets better or worse based on how we put those talents out into the world. I believe in some force that binds us all together. I believe that feeling that force and that connection exists is not necessarily contrary to how people believe in God. I mean, that is the idea of God that I can kind of embrace. The idea, and the beauty of the idea, if not the actual belief in the existence.

I mean, it's kind of why I am so in love with the show Joan of Arcadia. It's funny and well-written and well-acted and overall so well-done, but what I am most drawn to, I think, is the theme of the ripples, the idea that we should "only connect." That there are good ripples and bad ripples and that all that we do has an effect on someone or something. I think it's why I always loved the book A Wind in the Door and why I've always been drawn to the way that Madeleine L'Engle writes about faith in all of her books. That idea that we are all connected. That within a single human being's cells, within Charles Wallace within his mitochondria, within the farandolae within his mitochondria, are happenings that will either worsen or heal a rip in the universe. And in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the way Charles Wallace leaps through time and shows how even the tiniest little decisions and moments can alter history. And how the entirety of The Lord of the Rings teaches us that "even the smallest person can change the course of the future." And that little quote from which L'Engle took the title of another book, Troubling a Star:

All things by immortal power,
Near and far,
To each other linked are,
That thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling a star.

Thou canst not stir a flower without troubling a star.

I believe in that.

I believe that people have the capacity to do bad things and to do good things and that most people do a little or a lot of both. I believe that people should believe in whatever helps them to get through the day, in whatever gives them a framework for how to live their best life, and that people with the strongest of faiths should also believe that faith is personal and that if someone does not believe what they do, it's okay, because it's really none of their business. Of course, it's complicated by the idea of the afterlife and the conviction that those who don't believe what they do won't get to be there with them, so I don't really get offended by those who would want me to believe for that reason, I guess. But seriously. Keep faith out of the government. Keep it out of public schools. Keep it out of elections. Keep it out of laws deciding who can marry whom, for fuck's sake. Keep it out of the FCC. I believe that a strong faith in God and a strong faith in the Constitution are not mutually exclusive, and I respect the faithful who can see it that way a hell of a lot more than I do those who try to act like they are justified in imposing their faith on the whole of society. ThatŐs when I start to get a little pissed off.

But it is in looking about all of the good things I believe are inherent in having a faith that I come to terms with the fact that I don't believe in God. It's not in looking at the bad things, because in looking at it that way, the decision is too easy, isn't it? Clearly there are religious lunatics out there who do stupid-assed things in the name of God, but that doesn't make God bad. It makes them bad, and it gives God a bad name. In most of the people in my own little life, their faith is part of what makes them wonderful and weird and smart and kind. So it's not easy for me to say that I'm not a part of that with them, that I don't share that faith. It certainly has not been a simple matter for me to come to grips with letting go of the idea of an afterlife because that process has been one of the scariest things I've ever faced. To go from believing one's whole life that life does not end in death to believing that it almost certainly does has been wholly traumatic, and I don't say that lightly. But at the same time, it has also been kind of invigorating. It infuses each day with a kind of essence that might have been lacking before. That appreciation that this is it. That desire to truly gather my rosebuds while I may. I might not be doing that with every minute of every day, but it's in my mind, and it's in my heart, and it's changing me little by little, a little bit each day. It terrifies me, but it also makes me feel strangely more alive.

Only connect!
That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion,
and both will be exalted,
and human love will be seen at its highest.
Live in fragments no longer.

And at the heart of all of this, at least for me, is the phrase that has drifted through my mind for so long now, the question I ask myself over and over:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

About this time in ...



I tell everyone I know and everyone I don't about my amazing sister.



M. forgot her coat on the plane, adding to the drama of the high speed chase when she cried out on the concourse train, "I can't stand outside and meet Al Roker without my coat!"

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From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.


In this short Life
That only lasts an hour
How much -- how little -- is
Within our power

--Emily Dickinson