Friday, April 26, 2013

The Faith That Moves Mountains

After reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, I toyed with the idea of calling myself an atheist, because atheists, he explains, are not people who firmly believe there is no God. Rather, they simply live is if there isn't one. That could describe me. But so could a lot of watered down definitions of "Christian."

I was once a teenager and a young adult who was prematurely permitted to insert my hand into every aspect of the church's functioning. I taught children and teenagers, I ran programs, attended some sort of church function most days of the week. I was frequently called upon to give expression to my faith and I frequently complied.

At some point in my slow evolution into a functioning member of society, many of my own words came back to haunt me. The hollowness of my platitudes plagued me. Each phrase had been handed down to me and while I internalized them, believed them and tried to act upon them, I had not gained a single insight through experience, struggle or grief. My expressions of faith were no more real than a child playing dress-up, modeling the behavior of those around me.

I have slowly shed all of the aspects of faith that seem unreal to me.  I know the Bible. Its verses still sing away in me and there are some that are very insightful. But I don't miss the charade of churchgoing one bit. I don't miss my awkward attempts at making mine a story that I don't fully believe, the pat responses, the myopia. I don't trust myself to approach Christian teachings honestly when they are so deeply embedded in a culture that strikes me as wrong and subversively demanding on my internal resources, that quietly prods me toward spiritual falsity. Perhaps it does not have this effect on everyone, but that is how it affects me. It silences the part of me that is capable of insight, the part of me that that is serene in the face of death, the part that understands and accepts my nothingness in the flux of time, the part capable of spontaneous joy.

But here is what I have left. Sometimes when I finish a grueling run and everything in me is spent and I am full of joy, I whisper a silent, "Thank you." And I mean it. I mean it from the bottom of my heart and I am thanking the Creator of all things that in that moment, I truly believe in. It is for no one but Him and it is rich and full and real. I know that this is very poor. But my spirit is poor and this is all it has. I may be weak, I may be poor and I may be misguided. But I am not false.

This is the point where my Christian teenage self would have said, "That's great that you've recognized your spiritual poverty, but now..." And the church urges us to recognize our poverty and then go fill ourselves with spiritual riches and sing God's praises. But I will always be poor. The widow who gave her last mite did not go home rich. She went home as poor as she always was. We are broken and it's ok to live that way. It's only in my poverty that I can see the true value of what little I do possess. I will take a thousand runs to feel that tiny moment of true gratitude. Because that is all I am capable of.

One of those Bible verses that still courses through me is the promise that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit. I don't really even know what that means. But it sounds pretty good, and I know I am poor and I don't hope to be fixed. I feel grateful.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Memories are a hiding place.

Memories are a hiding place. All kinds of information is packed away in them that the brain that stored them was not yet equipped to understand. Fortunately life sometimes gives us enough distance from some of them that we can begin to understand their many layers.

My family lived in an apartment building until I was four years old. Sometime before that, and after I learned to walk, my father and I were walking hand-in-hand along the network of sidewalks that wound around the buildings in that complex. One and only one of them featured an elaborate balcony hanging off the back: Florence's apartment. My dad and I would walk there once a month to pay the rent in person, in cash. This day was not rent day; we just happened to pass by there. Little did we expect to see Florence gracing her balcony, or the invitation that would follow.

Florence was the landlady that some writer would invent for a sitcom. She had what must have been translucent white hair, dyed into a poof of orange that she would wear piled on her head in some bewitching manner that was capable of acting like a light catcher on sunny afternoons. And so it was-- sunny, mid-day, perhaps spring. Perhaps a day like today.

I don't remember any of the words she and my father exchanged. But I do remember the textures, the emotions. Florence stood on the balcony engaging my father in a conversation he would rather not be having, but which he felt obliged to carry on. I remember feeling like we were fish and she was up in her big boat casting her line, willing to reel in anything that would bite. She invited us inside and we went. It was the only time I remember being inside her living room and not just the rent office. She had an ornate golden couch, on either side of which stood two stone lions. She smoked a cigarette out of a holder until it became hard to breathe. Everything intimidated. Eventually we left, apparently, because I am not still there.

My mind has traveled back to that memory numerous times over the years, and I think the reason that it stuck was because I knew there was more to it than what I could understand at the time- the feeling of being on the underside of a class difference, the person above us barely at the top of our own class but striving to feel higher, and needing us in order to do so; the feeling of my father's reluctance to engage in the charade, perhaps not perceiving all of its elements himself, but feeling inexplicably shier than usual. My 3 or 4 year old self could not possibly have comprehended those aspects of the scene, yet there they are in my memory-- my early observations seared into my brain as images and textures of emotion, without words, and dubbed over by my more mature mind. It's hard to tell whether I perceived what was going on at the time without having the words to convey it, or whether I perceived those things only later, like someone watching a silent movie. Either way, the memory is laid over by a part of my mind and spirit that developed much, much later.

I observed a similar phenomenon with my oldest daughter, whose every development I had the pleasure of observing without distraction. The most mystifying part of her growth, to me, was that brief period where she was just on the cusp of language. There were a few occasions where she would talk about something that I realized had happened before she could talk. I found it hard to wrap my mind around the idea of describing a pre-lingual experience.

But we do this all the time. And as we age, we do it even more. We can even force it sometimes. Once you realize that your brain is storing things you can't yet decode, you can try to focus on experiences that your brain hooks on, that you know hold more than you can yet comprehend- a look on someone's face, the way someone reacts to information, a dream that seems to hold meaning. Your soul can learn to act as a scale for the weight of moments. It can alert you when there's something worth paying attention to.

But largely, this process is passive. Our minds bring us back memories when we are ready for them, when we are capable of understanding everything that they hold. Time does bear some wonderful gifts.

Monday, April 15, 2013

To See

The first things I always notice when I meet a person are the factors that might shape their worldview- their socio-economic position, place of upbringing, parental status- there are a million other possibilities, but you can't just ask about these things outright.  At best, I function like a metal detector, honing in on the important bits just enough to send off a little alarm in my brain to let me know when I'm close. But those are always the pieces I look for first- sort of like how when I do a puzzle, I look for all the edge pieces first. Sometimes I map out the perimeter and get bored with it and walk away. Other times I see unfathomable mysteries, I become intrigued, I slave over all the bits I can find, shaping them into a proper picture in my heart and in my mind- right down to that last piece that magically completes the puzzle. It may take months or years, but some pictures just demand to be seen, and those of us who are able, should.

Three Minutes

After finishing a long run over the sun-soaked, shadow-torn rolling hills south of Buffalo, NY yesterday, I walked a quarter mile to my car. It took only about three minutes to walk the last length of the dead end road where my car was waiting for me in the late afternoon sun, which was just beginning to wane at around 5 p.m. I recall the light being about the same when I ran a similar course last fall, probably October, a parallel place in the earth's ellipsis around the sun. And the day had other parallels as well.

On that day the fall had just begun to creep into my bones and I walked this same stretch of road feeling the fullness of its presence. Three minutes gave me leaves falling across my path, a three legged black dog doing its strange gallop beside me-- black dogs always the harbinger of death. Geese honked their departure overhead. A sad new grayness settled into the sky, the sunlight losing its luster. I could feel the slow ebb of all the small things that make smiling inevitable, leaving me alone with my thoughts in what would soon be a much quieter landscape, to test my body and my mind against harsher elements.

And yesterday, in the same three minute walk, spring was making its presence known. In that tiny sliver of time, the fullness of the season worked its way into me. The black dog was lazing in the sunshine on its porch and in the front corner of the yard, in a closet of leafless vines, a brother and sister were playing in what is really no more than a puddle. But it was large enough for the girl to paddle around it in her inner tube, which is what she was doing while her brother, a few years older at most, stood atop the upturned roots of a fallen tree-- likely soaked through by the collected water-- engaged in a make-believe drama that prompted him to shout, "I'm going to be doomed!" as he teetered on the edge of falling. He did not see me but his sister did, and she smiled quietly at me, seeming to share for a second my outsider's perspective on her brother. She said nothing to him or to me, but paddled on in small circles.

I carried on and saw three roosters pecking away under the giant pine tree in front of their house, watched geese gliding to a landing in the pond across the street. And much to my surprise, I could hear in the thicket what I can only imagine was the sound of geese mating. What a brutal and sensuous racket!

Two three-minute walks form my deepest impressions of fall and spring. Time slices the tiniest slivers of its passage into our souls, marking the seasons on our bones like a prisoner passing the days by carving a tally mark for each one into his wall. These are the loveliest scars to bear.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Ache

Not even fools deny the ache
That rends us all, but only they
Claim to assuage it.

The rest of us just sing to it
And force our hearts to bring to it
The sadness of our aging.

Time is a stream that swells in spring,
Gathering speed with the sort of change
That puts us off remembering.