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Thinking about religion is a heavy topic. Today I offer a childhood story instead.

Children are impatient creatures. When I was small and lived in Massachusetts and time dripped by slowly as it does for small people, there used to be a yearly family reunion picnic. It was the largest event of my year, The Family Picnic. We’d go to Slater Park in Pawtucket Rhode Island, so close to Attleboro you had but to play hopscotch to get there, and then we’d set up. Coolers, and food for the grill, prizes for contests for the wee ones (like me!), blankets, toys… and then the attractions of the park itself.

There had been a zoo there, a small one, with Fanny the Elephant; there were paths to walk along, a large playground to play upon, a pond to rent paddle boats on (or skate upon in winter), but best of all, best of all, there was a carousel. It was an ancient thing, one of the oldest I knew of, so old that none of the horses bobbed up and down. In the days of my youth, tickets for a ride were 25¢. There were portraits and landscapes and still lifes painted on panels on the center column, and beneath the gaze of a mustached old man in a black bowler hat was my horse.

She was black with a yellow saddle and blanket, and the gems that dotted her harness and tack were half gone, dug out years ago, leaving empty sockets in their place. There were chips missing from her wooden mane. She was beautiful.

Every year, I would ride only her, my horse on the old carousel. And if she was taken, I would sit still and quiet on the original wooden benches until whatever toddler had decided to ride her was done, and I could climb up into the saddle to exult in the wind ruffling my hair and the chords of the carousel music.

To Find a Road (Part 2 of 4)

My first ethnographic project—which wasn’t very good, being the first time I had attempted such a thing—I did on the notion of growing up Catholic. There was something about growing up within a religious tradition which was foreign to me, and thus exciting. My mother was upset that I had taken up this subject at all for my class. “Pagans! They’re all pagans worshiping false gods!” she’d rant about those who followed her childhood faith. Having done a thesis on Pagans, I can assure you that Catholics are most indubitably not Pagans—although there are those who blend the two. I tell myself perhaps it’s the latter that my mother meant. I know better, but it’s easier to tell myself the comforting tale instead of accepting the hatred. Hatred burns going down.

Catholicism is a strange and beautiful beast. A Catholic church, if traditional, can be awe-inspiring. I think perhaps that it is this very quality which fragments my memories of the church. The priest I met during my ethnographic inquiries had the most musical Irish accent. The homily addressed the notion of being within the world, of doing what one can while here on earth, and doing for the sake of those beyond just our nearby neighbors. It was odd to hear this, and the priest emphasized just that. As much as Catholicism focused, he admitted, on the afterlife, and how to avoid sin rather than on being within the world, it was important to the community to be a good neighbor while the living state prevailed. So it was peculiar for me to hear this, that particular day, sitting in the pews all un-Catholic, lagging a beat behind when people stood to then use the kneelers. One thing is certain, I became adept at murmuring unfamiliar words and making it look right. Under the spell of the homily, I “stole” a blessing when all went up for communion. It was familiar. It was exotic.

My classmate, involved in her own ethnographic project, took me to interview her family. The thing that struck me most was that I kept asking about their individual experiences and interpretations of their upbringing, but they kept referring me to their priest. They didn’t view their experiences, their worship, as a true reflection of their religion. I named myself a Pagan at 15– at the time, six years of being my own expert on faith set an interesting contrast. Even my friend’s mother, to whom I explained the project, kept stating firmly, “Oh, I don’t really know anything about that. You should talk to our priest,” although he had little to do with my ethnographic endeavor.

This time period also marked an interesting battle for my soul. My mother came down hard preaching the gospel in her “I’m a Christian, not a Protestant!” Protestant way, and my friend’s mother urged me to convert to Catholicism. The funny part was when my father leapt into the fray. One day, out of nowhere visible, he asked me, “Do you believe in god?” God with a lowercase “g,” of course, it being my father, staunch atheist, and the original unbeliever.

I had to pause. A Pagan of six years, my head filled with goddesses, and I couldn’t answer the question yes. I also couldn’t honestly answer it no. So I said the thing that made most sense to me: “Yes and no both.”

“Then the answer is no,” he said inflexibly. The rest of the conversation leaked away, and the words sort of drained themselves of color after that. I asked myself that night and for days after, “Do I really believe in the Gods? Do I really not?” I came up with no answer satisfactory to my ruthlessly logical poet’s mind that really really likes both geometry and nonsense. Except that homily drifted back, and expanded, and grew, and outright bloomed.

I am here in the world now, doing and being and believing. What I believe is a contradiction. But every human endeavor is rife with contradiction. All I have is but to be here, to do here, to exist in relationship with the world around me, and to believe and not believe both at once. I thought of Janus, twin faced, and I thought of every paradoxical twist of it-can-not-be that my mind could stretch to muster.

And after all that, I realized something. My dad would make a shitty Buddhist.

To Leap the Gap (Part 1 of 4)

I am a skeptic, a cynic. I don’t believe.

I grew up an atheist, and “god” was with a lowercase “g,” and something far off, and something that was rather on par with the tooth fairy or fae fat men who stuffed themselves down chimneys. I was supposed to believe in this thing, kind of like I was supposed to believe in Santa, but neither made sense, and both were just stories.

I suppose that gives shape to my atheism: it was marked on the Christian calendar, but it was completely secular. I had not an inkling what a “Jesus” was, and Easter really was about bunnies… that my father and I joked about shooting. This was to traumatize my sister. It worked quite effectively.

Skeptic though I am, I wanted to belong. Religion was a lot like a club to which I didn’t have membership. Kids, as you are well aware, are mean; as a child they made sure I felt my outside status like a knife. It was a relief at the time when my mother professed her Protestantism. I had little understanding of AA then, and what it would mean for all of us in the future, and to her lapsed Catholic family, but in that moment, I saw it as my members only pass. We found a Methodist church. In this Methodist church I found my own private altar to self-hatred. I finally belonged, they finally taught me about the mythical god of my childhood, and they taught me to hate my body. They taught me that puberty was fraught with sin, that the desires I felt were only okay if I never acted upon them, even when I was married (stuff it down, pleasure is not yours; yours is to please with your purity). They taught me that it was wrong to pleasure myself (how would I know pleasure at all if I did not learn it with myself?). They rarely stated these things openly, though the ideas would dot a sermon. But however piecemeal these notions were in spoken words, you could read them all clearly in the margins.

A diatribe against organized religion? No. Not entirely. Not every church is like this. And not every moment at this church stripped away pieces of me I now hold dear. For all my wanting to belong, and all my wanting to believe, I did get something in return. I had my first glimpse of the sacred.

Every Christmas on the night before, this church held a candlelight service. I’m told this is nothing out of the ordinary, that many churches do the same. However, the first time… First, there were the ushers standing in the center aisle between the pews, and I couldn’t see their candles for all the damned fluorescent lights blazing. All of us held little white candles in our hands, with bent and worn cardboard drip shields. They looked so silly under the electric suns in rows. I remember none of the words, none of the dour hymns– and Eddie Izzard is right, they are all soulless songs with no joy, even the Christmas carols when they’re all sung off-key. There came a pause, and the fluorescence disappeared, carrying a deep blackness with it as our eyes adjusted. And out of the gloom, there were the golden bubbles held by the ushers, tilting toward the pews, held unmoving for a moment, then another light was born of the union wick to wick. Fire passed person to person down the rows, the glow swelling like the crescendo of some strange silent song. After I took off my glasses to see only the shawl of tiny fires, I held my light close to my body, cradling it as close as the flame would allow. It was my light in the world, my presence in a sea of light. People are light, oh god, oh God, people are light and darkness both.

It took until the fluorescents came back on for me to realize tears were streaming down my face. I was still not a Christian after that, but I understood belief. Skeptic. Cynic. Mystic. Believer.

There is a Small Stuffed Triceratops on My Altar

I spent a week in Washington, D.C. this summer. A strange trip, to be sure. Friends tell me it is a great city for museums and monuments and not much else. I’m not so sure. I give cities many chances. I am often surprised. I was quite differently surprised there that week.

When one goes to a museum, one expects things. This is true of most places one goes– there are expectations, met, surpassed, events that fall far short of the bar. Things rarely happen just as one supposes things should. In a museum, one usually expects… quiet… engagement with the exhibits, perhaps… sometimes awe… and usually, acceptance of the material presented.

There are certain things in a museum one does not expect. I was quiet after meandering through the gems and geology hall in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, winding down the ramp from the second to the first floor and into the fossils and paleobiology exhibit. Bones. Bones and bones, tree bones, stone bones once vegetable flesh, the cellulose preserved for perhaps as long as this planet decides to last, then the fossilized frames of the hulking giants of Kingdom Animalia who no longer walk the sod now beneath my toes, fish bones mounted to the walls, frozen in time as though frozen in water. And there, still amid the jostling crowds from so many nations, silent amid the voices speaking so many languages, there was the triceratops. It had been years since I had given dinosaurs the least of thoughts, decades since I had proclaimed “I want to be a paleontologist!” But here he was, despite my forsaking him. A skeleton as big as a bull Indian elephant, a specter of my childhood passions. I stood transfixed, unicorn in pocket, leaned up against the railing and rocked to the core. Here was my triceratops. I had longed as a little girl to see him, this one, and finally, finally here I was. I had longed to dig the bones of his kin out of the earth, to touch them with my own fingers, to heft them in my hands after dusting off the last bit of dirt with a tiny brush (after the shovels and the heavy machinery had made this last careful work possible). What changed? Why did I turn to the study of people when these ancient giants waited silently beneath for my touch? The anthropologist in me was quiet for the first time since high school, and I could feel the tears pricking at my eyes. The whole world, despite the children running, the photos snapping, the roar of a hundred different languages spoken at once, the whole world was small-quiet-still and glowing.

I held these questions heavy in my head as I back-tracked through the museum and wandered upstairs to the Western Cultures Hall. Humanity and our buried history fascinates me, and yet the ancient traces of people long gone did not hold the same power as the triceratops. The anthropologist in me woke up: what are the social implications of the dioramas presented by the museum? What kind of ideas do they provoke in the visitors? Is this a responsible way to portray the people of the past? Are people as engaged with this as they are with, say, Colonial Williamsburg? Why not the history of “World Cultures?” How many visitors understand the bias and value judgements implicit in focusing on so small a section of the world? The questions kept churning; they wouldn’t stop.

The walls of the exhibit hall wear painted silhouettes of people– a male and female figure, each. Near the heads of these silhouettes are a set of lines marking the height of ancient people of the area featured in a nearby diorama, and a set of lines marking the height of modern peoples in the same area. When one enters the hall, the first of these sets of silhouettes is marked 30,000 years ago, at least as I recall. I know they were a tool to help engage visitors with the exhibits they were seeing, but even still, I didn’t think much about these murals.

There are certain things in a museum one does not expect. On my way out of the exhibit hall, I passed the “30,000 years ago” silhouette, and a young couple stood gazing at it. What caught me short was his voice: “If I lived 30,000 years ago, I wouldn’t be this tall, because no one was alive then! This is such bullshit! None of this is proven! The earth is only, like, 6,000 years old! They should read the Bible.” I stopped completely, halted in my tracks. The only response I could muster was to stare at him disgustedly, but inside something hurt. I couldn’t pin down exactly what it was that ached so with his comments.

At first my mind spun out questions: what was he doing in this museum if he was so adamantly against the exhibits? Then I wished I had talked to him– my dirty look had been aimed at his entire belief system. That must be an awful feeling, to have someone angry at your religion… but there was something missing still. That last thought held an empty spot, a missing chunk of thought. He wasn’t thinking about what others around him thought when he said what he did. He didn’t care that he had spouted all of that off in a place of… (and here I paused, as the realization bubbled up after a long quiet)… in a holy place. In a temple devoted to our society’s origin myths, in a place where the past as the (white secular mainstream affluent) West understands it is revered. He had shit in my holy.

And it was holy. That was the glow. Triceratops was the god of my childhood, no longer my patron, but still of my pantheon, ancient and secret and strange. Part numb and part tingling, like a shadow I floated along the walls down to the gift shop; like a tourist at Lourdes, I bought my icon of the apparition– a bean-stuffed triceratops, soft and vaguely musty-smelling; like a pilgrim on the road, I made my way back to the hall of fossils and stood against the flow of bodies and stared at Triceratops. I asked a blessing of His ancient bones.

And I asked a blessing of His ancient bones. There are certain things in a museum one does not expect.