Thursday, December 29, 2011

My father passed away two days ago. I posted, "It's over. R.I.P. Dad" as my Facebook status to let people know. It was comforting to receive comments and condolences from my friends. Of course, the people with whom I am the closest have been with me and in contact by phone throughout the past few days.

They all must know I'm an atheist. What they might not know is that my father was one too, and he never verbalized anything different during his two year battle with cancer. He faced it bravely and with more dignity than I thought possible, all the while facing what he perceived was impending oblivion. There will be no service, no burial, no headstone. He will be having a military burial at sea, as was his stated wish.

I was comforted by people's comments, all except one. This one was from a Christian coworker that maintains I am seeking Jesus and just don't know it and/or won't admit it. As soon as I saw her name, I knew she would not be able to resist, and I was right. She said her prayers are with me and my family. I appreciate the sentiment, but she had to have consciously said that instead of the more generic "thinking of you" type of statements made by others. I do realize that people might not know what to say to an atheist at times like these, but most people are obviously trying to say what they think will actually be comforting to me.

This feels petty, and I'm not going to say anything to her, but I felt like saying to her, "Don't pray for him. If you think I'm an atheist, you should have met my dad. Even though he was scared of dying and worried about those of us he was leaving behind, he never wavered in his belief that life happens on its terms, not ours. He would not have wanted your prayers."

I know people will say their prayers are with us and they mean well, but it irks me. I feel petty. My problem with it is the propensity some Christians, including my coworker, have for using times like this to attempt to insinuate their deity into the picture. A kinder thing would be to just say, "Diane, I'm sorry for your loss," and let it go at that.

I hope to express this here and not towards anybody else who will say their prayers are with us or that my dad is in Heaven now. Now is not the time for anger, but sadness and acceptance. Carl Sagan's comment about how we are all made of stardust is comforting me now. Everything is recycled, recreated, reforged into something new. My father's ashes may be part of a meteor shower watched by beings in another galaxy millions of years from now, igniting sparks of wonder in a small creature's mind.

I have been that small creature, afraid of the dark, holding onto my father's hand and watching in awe as the lights streaked across the sky. Thank you, dad, and goodbye.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A response to a friend, a follower of Christ

Have you ever read The Chronicles of Narnia? I think there are 7 books in all. They were written by C.S. Lewis, and they, along with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, are some of the books I've read and re-read the most in my life. They are the closest things to a "Bible" I've got.

Narnia was created and presided over by Aslan. Wikipedia says this:  "Aslan is a talking lion, the King of Beasts, son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea; a wise, compassionate, magical authority (both temporal and spiritual); mysterious and benevolent guide to the human children who visit as well as guardian and saviour of Narnia. C. S. Lewis described Aslan as an alternative version of Jesus that is: "as the form in which Christ might have appeared in a fantasy world".

I think that your relationship with Jesus must feel similar to Narnians' and the visiting children's relationship with him. The very name "Aslan" fills the characters' psyches with warmth, love, and comfort, or fear and shame, depending on the circumstances. He loves them unconditionally but allows them to have free will even if it means they choose courses of action that end in separation from him.

I would love to have an Aslan! How wonderful that would be! The characters long to be touched by his breath and to bury their faces in his mane. They call his name in times of need, knowing he will respond as he sees fit.

At the end of the last book, Narnia ends and all of the people and creatures that believed in Aslan, or believed in something else that wasn't presented as Aslan but ultimately was, went through a magical doorway to the real Narnia. They discovered that the Narnia they had known was but a shadow of the real Narnia. The further in and higher up they went, the larger and more real it became.
There was no more weakness, pain, or infirmity. All they felt was joy and love. They had died but not really lived until then.

If you haven't read the books, I highly recommend them. When I read that last book, called The Last Battle, I realize C.S. Lewis must have been trying to describe a personal relationship with Jesus and what Heaven must be like. I get that. It sounds wonderful.  My problem is that I know it is fictional. Aslan seems more real to me than Jesus does, in fact. I could just as easily convince myself that Aslan exists as does Jesus. I suppose if Aslan showed up at my doorstep, I'd have to believe in him. So far, though, no deities have come to the door, at least not in the way I need to have it presented to me for it to make sense. Any actual deity, or one with whom I would want to associate, would know this about me and present itself accordingly.

Why the game playing? Why would a deity demand faith without presenting obvious proof? It makes no sense to me! At least Aslan presented himself to people. I mean in a real sense. I would pay attention to a giant talking lion standing in front of me!

The thing about this is that a lot of people make the mistaken assumption that atheists are atheists because they are ignorant about a god or have never sought one. This is so not true!  I believe what you want for me is to have that comforting, loving, protective, guiding relationship with Jesus. I know I could allow myself to be convinced through prayer, reading, and communion with believers, but that is not the same as the actual being presenting itself. Without proof, it's just mind games. The mind is a very powerful thing.

Well I do ramble on, huh? Part of it is that I am finding out what I do believe, and refining it, as I have this type of discussion with people. I become ever more the atheist as I go.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The tapas bar scene

"Que pasa?" said several men after I ran into the doorway while running out
of a tapas bar in Cornella de L'lobregat, just outside of Barcelona. I
dropped the change I had come there to get for the bus that would be at the
bus stop, which was about a 5 minute run away, in about 5 minutes.
If I missed the bus, I would miss my plane again, and be stuck in Barcelona
for another 24 hours.

I ran to the bus stop to find Rosario still waiting there with my luggage. We had walked from her apartment for at least an hour, following the same path I had walked the night before in a futile attempt to find the hotel I had miraculously booked online back at Pili's in St. Just Desvern.

"Que pasa?" said Rosario as I tried to catch my breath and rubbed my now
very swollen and numb left hand. By the time I could get a word out, I
started crying. In between gasps for air and sobs, I said, "La puerta, mi
mano..." and mimed what had just happened for Rosario. I had the change,
though. That was what mattered right then.

Rosario had to go to work, so we said our goodbyes and I waited for the bus
alone. After what seemed like a long time, it came. I got on and sat down,
heading towards the airport and, hopefully, Philadelphia.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What DO you believe?

I have been asked this question by several Christians, and it's a good question.  I suspect they might expect me to say, "I believe in sacrificing goats to Cthulhu," or "I believe in daily orgies."  Oh, wait.  It's the Christian Bible that supports animal sacrifice for seemingly just about any reason.  I'm so confused.  

I wish I didn't care about religion one way or the other.  Try as I might, I seem to be unable to stay under the radar.  I do not mean to pick on Christianity, but I am surrounded by Christians who are after my soul.  I haven't had any Buddhists encouraging me to convert.  No Hindus have told me that unless I believe in their deities I will burn for eternity in Hell.  Nobody other than the Christians seems to care.

So, here's my answer.   I don't believe in any god.   I especially don’t have faith in the Christian god.   I am not completely without beliefs, however.   I believe that, in a general sense, what goes around comes around.   I believe in the importance of freedom of religion and separation of church and state.  I think that mankind creates concepts of “god” because, as complex as we are and as much as we have evolved, much of what happens to man over time is seemingly violent and random.   Even though I don’t believe in your god, I think it is important to live according to ideals that make good moral sense.

I believe that I have the duty to protect my children from being taught mythology, albeit modern, as science in school.   I believe that Jesus could have been a real person and would be mortified at the actions of many of his followers now and throughout the past 2000 years.

I know that all life on this planet evolved from a common ancestor through the process of natural selection, and I know this because of the overwhelming evidence in support of the scientific theory of evolution.  There is a huge difference between faith and knowledge.

I do believe we have a creator of sorts - the Earth, the cosmos, the stars.  I believe that there is a divine melody playing in the universe, and I don’t need to assign a composer to it.  It is there to listen to or not.

I believe that the creator, if there is such an entity, is inherently ineffable. I think that religions are created by humans, and are a weak guess at what or whom may be at the root of the cosmos. I am prefacing my comments with “I think” and “I believe” because I have a right to do or not do both, and I will not willingly give up those rights.

Deep down, when I ask myself what will happen when I die, I don’t have an answer. I highly doubt that any one group of homo sapiens has somehow, out of the infinite possibilities that could have been settled upon, picked the exact form of the creator around which to form a religion.  Do I believe in some force greater than myself, than mankind? Yes. I don’t know what it is and I don’t need to know. I don’t think it cares what I think: It just is.

I am a passionate, soulful person on a spiritual path of my own. As Martin Luther said when asked to recant his criticism against The Catholic Church, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” If I had to say I believed in your god to save the life of a loved one, I would say it, but I would believe it even less inside.

My “creator” lives in mitochondria.  It is in the beautiful blue atmosphere of the Earth.  I see it reflecting back at me when I look at pictures of the Whirlpool Galaxy.  It is in my back yard.  It is in this moment.  It is in each breath.

To the Christians in my life:  Your religion, churches, books, and deities don't add to that at all.  They confuse and contort sacred simplicity into twisted, damaging, processed, dangerous, impersonal, power-hungry, egocentric, and befuddling nonsense.  Please, if you care about me like you claim you do, don't ask me to read your book or go to your church.  Just know that when I am in the moment at the top of a mountain, or just walking down the street, I've got my own thing going and don't need the trappings of your religion to make sense of it.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Yesterday as I drove through Franconia Notch, I looked up at Cannon Mountain's ski trails.  The ski lift disappeared in the clouds that covered the top half of the mountain. It reminded me of a dream I had a long time ago, and from what I was seeking refuge in a remote corner of the White Mountain National Forest.

I had the dream when I was in my mid twenties, and it was exactly the sort of dream people might have when they are doing the developmental work that normally happens around that time.  I was on a ski lift with my father, which never happened in real life. My father told me when I took up skiing, "People who strap fiberglass to their feet and go down a mountain should have their heads examined."  That's the kind of thing my father was prone to saying.  He also told me that even if he believed in Heaven it wouldn't matter because it would be full by now.  

My father is a retired engineer and military officer.  He's never been overly demonstrative in any direction.  He has always preferred to read a good book than to talk to just about anybody. Showing affection is not his strong suit. In the dream though, as we glided slowly upwards, he wordlessly showed me how much I meant to him.  

He gave me a folded piece of paper, which unfolded to reveal things he had collected from my whole life up until that point.  Everything I had ever wanted him to say to me was said.  Every question I had about who I was, where I came from, and how he felt about me was answered.  He also gave me a jewelry box containing trinkets from my childhood - acorn tops, pocket knives, tickets to the ferris wheel at Coney Island.  

As I relished in these physical affirmations of how precious I was to him, the ski lift stopped at a halfway point.  I got off but my father stayed on the lift.  I stood there holding the paper and the box as I watched him go silently up and fade into the mist.  

After I had that dream, I knew the day would come when my father would leave whatever he could and go on without us.  I realized as I recalled the dream yesterday that I am now on the ground watching my father being taken slowly away.  

We are not sure whether it's the brain tumors, the chemotherapy, Alzheimer's or multiple small strokes that is taking my father away from us, but he is surely going.  He never gave me a paper or a jewelry box in real life, but I have them just the same. What he gave me was a chance to find them myself.  He taught me to trust my intellect and to think for myself.  He and my mother taught me to love and respect the natural world, and that there is no creator besides nature, no rules beyond the laws of science.  He helped me to have the ability to find solace hiking up a mountain in the midst of the crisis created by his illness and change in how he is in our lives.  

My father really doesn't believe in heaven.  I don't know where he was headed in my dream, but it was warm and peaceful.  In reality he's terrified and trying to get off the ski lift with me, but we all know he can't.  For now, I will maintain eye contact as long as I can before I can't see him any more, and I will never let go of  what he gave me.  I know I will need it to walk down the mountain without him.  

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Maladjusted universe

I was at the airport, waiting for my flight to board.  After going on earlier that morning about how everything  had gone smoothly for a change, my flight was delayed due to weather.  After emailing my friends about this, I was reminded that the universe does indeed hate me.  I have highly suspected this was the case all along.  I don't know what I’ve ever done to it, but I’m going to love it anyway.  I’m going to give it a pinch on the cheek and tell it to go have a bath and calm down.  It’s a bit sulky.

Telling it off really doesn’t do anyone any good.  It is tempting, though.  When I have been unable to resist, it gets all passive-aggressive and does something else hideous. The only rational choice is to love it and let it be no matter what it does.  It's a stingy, surly, asshole of a Universe.  (I hope it's not listening.)  Surely, it's ineffably vast and beautiful, and transcends petty concerns like time and meaning.  It plays a mean, random game, and should have a yellow card thrown at it for being unnecessarily foul. Even so, hating it only poisons the hater.

Who and where is the referee?  Is it a god?  I don’t think so.  If I thought one existed, I would think he/she/it needs a yellow card too.  It’s an endless cycle of infinite regression in which nobody can stop the universe from doing whatever it damn well is going to do.  As wonderful as it would be to have an unbiased and fair buffer between me and the rest of existence,or in between everyone who needs solace, protection, food, peace, etc. and the cold infinity of  soul-less space, in my heart I don't believe there is one.

Someone once asked me if I had any faith, and I said, "No, I don't."  That's not quite true, I've come to realize.  Even though I can't know with certainty, I believe that time will pass and things will happen.  That's the sum total of my faith. The conclusion that logically follows is each moment should be cherished, even in the midst of pain and tragedy.  Right now is all there is.  For me, there is no redemption, no savior, no fluffy afterlife.  There is always something to smile about, be grateful for, marvel about, or be comfortingly humbled by, right now, if I choose to look at it that way.  I often do.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Agent of peace and normalcy

I just read part of an article mourning the demise of Borders, and I realized it is having an impact on me.   My daughter and I were near our local one on Saturday, and I asked her if she wanted to go in.  She said, "No.  It's too sad."  I didn't think much about it at the time, but I'm sad about it too.

We are a family of readers.  My kids have grown up going to Borders.  The girls started reading the Harry Potter series when they were in second and fourth grade, and they were at Borders at midnight for all the releases after the first book.  We waited in line with our pre-order tickets, watching as costumed Harrys, Hermiones, Rons, Dumbledores, and Snapes ran around excitedly. Buying Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans became a Christmas tradition in our family.  The girls would give me a jelly bean, saying it was coconut, and I would dutifully bite into it, knowing it was likely to be sardine instead.  My oldest daughter regularly threw up after biting into disgusting ones.  It's a very strange tradition, I know, but we still laugh about the sausage jelly bean incident. She still gags when she thinks about it.  I put one of the pre-order tickets in the scrapbook I made for my other daughter when she graduated from high school, and the last page of the 7th Harry Potter book is on the last page of that scrapbook.  It is the end of an era.  

My ex-husband and I used to go there and look at the home improvement books, getting ideas for the house we were completely renovating.  I sometimes forget that there were a lot of good times with him.  A lot of them happened at Borders.  I am not high maintenance where gifts are concerned, but I appreciate when someone gives me something that shows he or she knows me.  I can look at my bookshelf and see a lot of books he got for me: the two-volume set of the complete Far Side collection, A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, Spook, Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide, the Encyclopedia of North American Birds, the Planet Earth boxed DVD set, two Onion books...   There are many more too.  The marriage failed miserably, but there was a time when we were deeply connected.  We had many, many dates at Borders.  It is one of the places we were the happiest, either apart or together.

And out of that connection came our son.  Some of his first steps were at Borders.  Taking him there mostly meant chasing after him exasperatingly, but there were hours spent reading to him on the carpeted steps in the children's section.  He started at the books he could chew on, and has so far worked his way up to the "Books for Young Readers" section.  It can be difficult to get him to sit and read, but damn, that kid will sit on the toilet and read for an hour at a time if left alone.  It must be a guy thing.  He thinks it's normal to spend the better part of an afternoon or evening surrounded by books, and to hunt for the perfect book.  

As I reflect on Borders closing, I realize that even though the universe obviously wants to choke the life out of me, I have managed to have some really good, normal times. Years after I have died, my kids will undoubtedly recall the time I gave my daughter a "Bonsai Potato" book as a gag gift and when, inspired by the Harry Potter series, we went to Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan to hear John Irving, Stephen King, and J. K. Rowling read from their works.  The universe can take away my husband(s), house, parents, good credit rating, security, companionship and dreams, but it hasn't taken away the memory of the taste of the Godiva dark chocolate/lime truffles we ate while waiting to see J.K. Rowling in person.  I know the universe can actually take that memory away too.  For right now, we still have it.  In a way someone who is waiting for multiple pairs of shoes to drop at any time will appreciate, I am grateful for any and all agents of peace and normalcy in my life.  As it turns out, Borders has been one of those agents.